This week, in one of the Management courses I am teaching, we are discussing Servant Leadership. Servant Leadership is an interesting concept that truly takes what the world sees as a leader and turns it backwards. The topic has my mind reminiscing.
When we lived in Pakistan, we had many servants. In fact, our large home had servant’s quarters in the back. These were rooms with a connecting bathroom that they could share. There was a bed and their own belongings. The servants could live there so they didn’t have to pay to commute (cars were hard to come by for poor people) and basically it was free room and board. Since I grew up with this, I didn’t think much of it. It was the norm.
One of the rooms was given to my beloved nanny, Abbai. She didn’t really stay there, as she was our nanny. She usually slept in our home and in our rooms. She did keep one old-fashioned lock trunk with her few possessions in that little servant’s room. The other room was generally occupied by our cook who had to get up early to make meals and stay late to clean up. I never really paid much attention to our cook either, unless I wanted a treat to eat.
The term “Servant” is not really a good one for most of the world. It means one who is subservient and caters to another’s beck and call. My parents did not encourage us to talk to the house servants – we didn’t know them personally and you just didn’t do that. The only exception was our nanny who was with us continuously and was considered to be a part of our family. So she was above the other servants due to her close relationship with the family. I thought of her as my grandmother for many years.
Anyone who has seen the BBC hit series “Downton Abbey” knows that even within the servants, there is a hierarchy. Our “chokeedar” or janitor was probably at the bottom, while my nanny, cook, and inside servants had the higher ranks. I didn’t know much about that either, other than seeing my nanny ordering the gardener or chauffeur to do a few things for her. I do recall, however, my mother presiding over the household matters with an air of authority. She was always quiet, never yelling but her gentle manner in which she carried herself spoke of her rank as lady of the house (mem sahib). She would line up the servants and give them their orders, especially when we were hosting a party or having guests… which was often.
ALL of this changed when we moved to the United States with only our 6 suitcases. My father, an electrical engineer, received multiple offers in the US that would set our family up for success financially – even more than what we had in Pakistan. When we moved here, it was a rude awakening for all of us, as there were no servants. Not even our nanny was allowed to come with us (a fact that still brings me to tears as a grown woman). We had to make our own meals, do the wash, clean, garden, and do all things that normal American families do (only we weren’t normal Americans!).
One day, my mother decided to host a party for some of the people we got to know from the Pakistani community. As we set about cooking, early in the morning, we were so excited. It had been a while since we had hosted a party. Little did we know that the party would not be for us. Instead, we were told not to eat until the guests had eaten (to ensure there was enough hot food on the table) and then to quickly eat so we could do the myriad of dishes (my mother only used china for entertaining) by hand. We were up until past midnight with the pile of dishes, desert dishes, tea cups, pots and pans from the day’s worth of cooking. As my parents had always pampered us as their beloved daughters, I did not want to now take on the role as a servant.
The next time there was a party, we were less excited and more wary – was it going to be the same thing again? If so, this was terrible! I began to detest my mother’s entertaining because it meant we had to fill in the serving role. We ate last, we worked and yes, we served the guests’ every need. This was a sore subject with me even until adulthood. I thought that I would not treat my own children as such! What an insult to use them as your makeshift servants… or so I thought at that time.
It was not until I met Christ Jesus that I understood why I had been placed in that role. It was a blessing and a gift that my mother gave me. I didn’t know that our Lord and Savior came to this earth not to rule with an iron fist, but to serve as the lowliest, most humble servant. In John 13, Jesus himself washes the disciples’ feet. To take off your clothes, be in your underclothes, is a sign of humility. To wash someone’s dirty feet, you have to have them sit or be raised higher than you and then you have to touch those feet with your hands and clean them. This was the job of the lowliest servant in the Eastern home. In Arabia, where there is dust and sand everywhere, there are servants to wash people’s feet. It’s disgusting, it’s grimy and it’s what the Lord of the Lords decided to take upon himself to do for his disciples.
When I read about what Jesus says “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” in both Matthew 19:30 and then again in Matthew 20:16, it made me scratch my head. It’s completely upside down from what the world says a leader is. We should be first in line. We should insist on our rights first. No, you shouldn’t let someone go ahead of you – you are much more important than that!
Jesus challenged his disciples to think differently. What if you started putting other people first? What would that look like to you? It could be something simple as allowing someone at the grocery store to go ahead of you. It could be something more difficult like allowing your spouse to have the final say on something you are passionate about. Or, it could be at work to let your employees know that I am here to serve you.
I am so thankful that the Lord taught me these lessons through my parents to serve others first and then serve yourself. I am thankful that I was taught to do the dishes and quit my complaining. These are the things that we now teach our children.
Can you imagine what that would do to the home, the workplace and to the world? Maybe people won’t notice… at first. I guarantee you that after consistently sending that message across with your actions, people WILL begin to notice and more importantly, you will begin to notice a change in your own heart.
Lord Jesus, may you increase and may I decrease. Amen.