First, let’s get ourselves oriented: “Serve” is a strange word. It just sounds plain ol’ weird. If you say it enough times, it starts thickening your tongue, and the word loses its meaning. Serveserveserveserveserve…. Told you.
We get the term from the French Servir, which came from the Latin Servire. My son (and resident linguist geek) Daniel insists this is pronounced “Sare weeray”. It meant “to do what a domestic slave does”–i.e., do the household shopping, and plow the master’s fields, and apparently hose down Roman vomit when the meal is over. One source says the Latin term, came from a couple of Etruscan proper names. It makes me wonder (I’m weirder as I wonder): what if Michael was that Etruscan slave all those years ago. Maybe the we would say “Michael the ball. It’s love-40, and I’m about to win the set.”
A brief history of Serving in English, because I’m a word geek too. The most interesting trend I notice is that, in the last 1000 years, the idea of serving has evolved. Every few hundred years, it has taken on new shades of meaning.
in 1150AD England, you served, not necessarily from duty, but because you were compelled to by contract. It’s where we got the word serf: “Sam served Sibyl.” Whew. Talk about your never-before-published Dr. Seuss books. The object (Sibyl) was known–she was a Lord; and Sam was always, always a serf. It’s how the idea was constructed. The job of servanthood was also fairly rigid. From our earlier sentence, and the 12th century understanding, we knew what Sam would do. He would serve Sibyl. What is he serving out? Why, anything Sibyl wanted him to, of course.
I’m belaboring the point because of this interesting phenomenon: by 1350, the term had taken an economic aspect. The master became the transaction itself– the service was still rendered, but for a price. If Sam serves Sibyl, it is no longer necessary for Sibyl to be the master of Sam (except inasmuch as Sibyl is a paying customer). In fact, it’s no longer perfectly clear that Sam is a servant in the strictest meaning of the word. Sam could be an innkeeper, or a doting husband. What mattered is that the Object of servitude accrued a debt that would be appeased by money changing hands.
In the 1380s, something happened: the term began to make rounds in culinary circles. What Sam served Sibyl was Sushi (or sasparilla). All inferred from the sentence. Sam the Subject, Sibyl the indirect object, Sushi the direct object for those diagramming the sentence in their head. Before this, the transaction required the servant to give “whatever” in exchange for money. Now, the “whatever” happened to be *food*. We still employ this sense in restaurants today.
By 1400, the basic idea was complete. To serve, you needed four components: an action (serving), an actor (Sam), a recipient of the action (Sibyl), and an Object (sushi).
Variations have been coming ever since: in the 1580s we didn’t just serve food, but tennis balls: “I served the last game. It’s your serve now.” Around that time, serving idea also took on a sense of justice (and irony) that was never there before: “It serves Sibyl right when she choked on that slice of sashimi.” Serving right. Justice. Ouch.
So how do you serve? Are you a Christian, or a part of another religion, that serves? It makes you a servant. Who then do you serve? What sorts of people or things are you serving? and perhaps most importantly, what kinds of things are you doing that marks you as a person who serves?
Back in the mid 1980s, my college had an annual “Slave Day” around Homecoming, where a student or professor could buy, at action, a person who had to do whatever their master said. My friend Tim (now my brother-in-law) was “bought” by Phil Owens and was forced to walk around in shorts and no shirt all day long, with the initials of the college shaved into his famously hairy chest. This was in 1987. In 1988, so as not to offend our minority students, The campus activities group changed the name to Doulos Day, doulos being the Greek word for servant or slave. By 1989, I think people finally realized that no matter how prettily you apply make-up to a pig, it’s still a pig underneath; that is to say, it was a horrible and offensive idea that may have been entertaining before the US Civil War, but not 125 years later in Central California.
Again, I ask: who do you serve? What sorts of people or things are you serving? What kinds of things are you doing that marks you as a person who serves?
I’ve never been one to shave my chest hair. Well, I did once. I did it for my wife. Thought it would be sexy, I did. THAT is the mark of a servant, I thought. I’m a moron. My wife laughed at me, it was summertime and–I bet you never knew this–a fresh-grown batch of chest hair itches horribly. Never again.
I guess I should ask, first, do I serve? I’ve heard it said that service requires sacrifice. I don’t know that it’s necessarily true. Thank a firefighter someday. They will probably shrug and mutter something about it being their duty. “Well, somebody needed to put the fire out. I was just in the right place at the right time.” It’s my thought that to be a servant, you must first have empathy. You need to be able to anticipate the needs of, and do anything for the object of your servitude. Jesus famously washed the feet of his disciples. They complained “Rabbi, why are you washing our feet?” I’m supposing Jesus just shrugged and said “Somebody needed to do it. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Since there are not many serfs running around today, we will more often see acts of service, not so much a life of servitude. Possibly, leading a life of servitude the same as leading a life of anticipation and empathy.
Servant. Scary term to you? You have to give up control? Nah. It’s not that ominous. At night serfs took off their boots, crawled into their huts at night, and ate with their family, delaying, for a moment, the idea they were in service. They had babies. They went on picnics. They thought about getting rich. But in the morning, they were servants again. What’s the bumper sticker say? “Commit random acts of kindness.” Start with one act. Then another. And another. Feel like a servant yet? No? How many snowflakes does it take before you have a drift? Try another. Build yourself a heap of kindness, right there on your back lawn. Soon it will become habit; maybe you’ll find that you’re a servant without even knowing it. And maybe you’ll never, ever have to shave your body hair.