Compassionate Service: with or without the Casserole

Though food can be a helpful, personal kind of gift when you aren’t feeling well, other gifts—love, concern, a listening ear—can be just as important.

Some months ago I accepted an assignment to speak at a stake visiting teaching convention on the subject “Compassionate Service—with or without the Casserole.” I spent several days thinking about the topic, and the harder I thought, the worse I felt. In fact, I began feeling terrible. Finally I found myself in the hospital having my appendix removed. And for the next two or three weeks I watched as my family and friends taught me about casseroles and compassion.

The tradition of casseroles is much maligned, but it is a good tradition. When you are not feeling well, food can be such a personal, helpful kind of gift. However, we should never let this tradition prevent us from finding other ways of being even more helpful.

When I had just come home from the hospital, a long-time friend knocked on the door. She had taken her daughter to a ballet lesson and decided to spend her forty-five-minute wait with me. Looking around at the flowers and food others had brought, she said, “I feel so foolish coming here empty-handed, but I have had such a hectic week.” (She is raising four small children by herself.) As she sat on the edge of my bed, we laughed about things we had done in college and cried about some things that have happened since. Her visit meant a great deal to me. I am grateful she didn’t stay away because she didn’t have a casserole. She certainly didn’t come empty-hearted.

I learned of the importance of the less tangible gifts even more forcibly one Sunday when a member of the bishopric announced that a sister in our ward had passed away the night before. A good friend, who was sitting behind me, gasped and began to sob. Later in the meeting, she bore a testimony I will never forget. She said she had known this sister was ill and had planned to visit her but hadn’t wanted to go empty-handed. The watermelon she bought for a fruit plate was a little mushy, though, so she decided to wait. Two weeks passed. When she had the fruit, she didn’t have the time; when she had the time, she didn’t have the fruit. Now the chance to visit her friend was gone. Too late she realized that her listening ear, her love and concern, would have been the most important gifts she could have taken.

I try to remember this hard-won lesson whenever I see a moving van pull into the neighborhood. I know that if I wait until I have a plate of cookies to meet the new neighbors, they may never find me or my cookies at their front door.

A sister in our ward who is crippled and lives alone told me once that she loves to see a visitor come to her door with two trays of food. “It means she is going to stay and eat with me, rather than just drop the food off and leave me to eat alone.” That is coming with both your heart and your hands full.

Another friend was once confined to the hospital for many weeks after back surgery. One thoughtful sister brought a bottle of nail polish with her when she came to visit. As they talked, my friend received a manicure and a pedicure. “It made me feel like a celebrity, rather than a patient,” my friend recalls.

President Spencer W. Kimball has reminded us that our Heavenly Father’s concern is most often shown through other mortals. And often our service consists of encouraging words or of helping with mundane tasks. “But what glorious consequences can flow from mundane acts and from small but deliberate deeds,” he observes. (Ensign, Dec. 1974, p. 2.)

Don’t those small, deliberate deeds mean the most when we are hurting? The kinds of service that Jesus gave in his earthly ministry were often of this sort. Charles Henry Parkhurst described the Lord’s style of compassionate service this way:

“Christ’s ministry, from Baptism to Ascension, … is mostly made up of little words, little deeds, little prayers, little sympathies, adding themselves together in unwearied succession. The Gospel is full of divine attempts to help and heal, in body, mind, and heart, the individual. … The completed beauty of Christ’s life is only the added beauty of little inconspicuous acts of Beauty—talking with a woman at the well; showing the young ruler the stealthy ambition laid away in his heart that kept him out of the Kingdom of Heaven; … teaching a little knot of followers how to pray; kindling a fire and broiling fish that disciples might have breakfast; waiting for them when they came ashore from a night of fishing, cold, tired, and discouraged. All of these things … let us so easily into the real quality and tone of [Christ’s] interests, so specific; so narrowed down, so enlisted in what is small, so engrossed in what is minute.” (“Kindness and Love,” in Leaves of Gold, Honesdale, Pa.: Coslet Publishing Co., 1938, p. 177.)

Have you ever noticed how much fun it can be to do acts of kindness out of love, rather than out of feelings of obligation and guilt? My mother has discovered this age-old secret. She made off with a whole basket of my ironing when I was recuperating from my appendectomy. When she brought it back, I gently chastised her for doing so much. “I loved doing it,” she said. “I had wanted to watch a movie, but I just couldn’t justify that much time in front of the television unless I was doing something helpful.”

A man in our ward who is everybody’s favorite person came to my door the day after I came home from the hospital. He was on crutches and in great pain because of a serious knee injury. “I need your kids,” he said.

“Need my kids?” I asked in disbelief. “You ought to be lying around like I am, letting people wait on you.”

He “borrowed” four of my young children and turned them loose in the grocery store to pick out a treat. Then he took them to his house and spent the afternoon showing them video movies while I enjoyed a long, wonderful nap. When I thanked him, he said, “Thanks for letting me borrow them. I needed someone to keep me company and wait on me while I watched movies.” I got the idea he had as much fun as they had!

Service given with this kind of love always means more to the receiver and also flows back to bless the giver. A sister in the ward whose family is grown often drops by to pick up the three small children of a recently divorced friend. She takes one or two or all of them with her to the grocery store or to a basketball game so the mother can rest or spend time alone with one child. When I recently told her how unselfish she was, she exclaimed, “That’s my therapy! I have a lot more fun when I’m with little children.”

The kind of service the Savior gave was precisely fitted to the needs he so sensitively perceived. He did not give one pat answer to all or dispense a loaf of bread on every occasion. If the people had a physical need he fed them. Sometimes he healed them or calmed a storm. If they had an emotional need that was crying out, he listened or taught a principle. He prayed with them, and sometimes he wept with them.

My sister-in-law’s neighbor has suffered for years with multiple sclerosis. From her wheelchair she has cheerfully served her family and friends, rarely complaining. But last summer she got shingles, a terribly painful illness. My sister-in-law spent several hours just holding her hand and listening to her cry. Later the woman told her, “It was so important to me to be able just to cry with you. You didn’t give me a two-and-a-half-minute talk on being brave. You didn’t smooth it over and tell me I would get better. You just listened and understood.”

But my sister-in-law also used her creativity to lift her neighbor’s burden. After one especially painful and discouraging day, she called her teenagers together and asked them to get out their butcher paper and paint. Together she and her children made a huge banner that said, “We love you!” At six o’clock the next morning, they sneaked across the yard and hung the banner outside their neighbor’s window so she would see it the minute the curtains were opened. This woman said their cheery message carried her through several more days of pain.

I appreciate the people who have taught me about this kind of compassionate service. How grateful I am for those who have responded to my needs, for those who—empty-handed or not—haven’t been afraid to come with full hearts.

Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh

Lori Boyer, mother of six, serves as nursery leader in the Richmond Hill Ward, Toronto Ontario (Canada) Stake.