Babu greeted us warmly our first night in the dining room. “Hello, dears.” He said to Jacob, Joelle and Lizzie, graciously accepting Jacob’s curious hand-reach. I started to lift Jacob from his stroller into his seat, but Babu interrupted, “I can help him if I may, madam,” he said in his beautiful Indian accent, as he lifted Jacob up into his seat, slid him into the table and placed the cloth napkin on his lap.
Almost any other formal dining situation I have encountered, I was made to feel that our children were a nuisance and unwelcome, especially Jacob’s vocalizing and Lizzie’s squirminess, but here my children were being treated like royalty. When Jacob’s meal of roasted chicken arrived, I picked up his knife and fork to begin cutting his food for him. Immediately Babu interrupted me again. “May I ma’am?” He picked up the knife and fork and painstakingly sliced each piece of chicken, each vegetable, each potato into child-sized bites.
I felt the discomfort creeping up in me. This wasn’t right. We shouldn’t be served like this. I was certainly capable of cutting my own child’s food. The service industry has so often been associated with exploitation, under compensation, and demeaning dehumanization of the server. It all too often reflects the disparity between have’s and the have not’s – those who can afford to be served and those who can’t afford but to serve. I rarely feel comfortable letting myself be served because of this. Every time the opportunity arises, I recognize it as part of the privilege I should be working to dismantle. If I accept the service, I do so with a great deal of internal guilt. The main dining room on the cruise was no exception.
Part of me started asking myself if we shouldn’t just take every meal in the buffet, avoiding the awkwardness and guilt of receiving service (though we were, of course, still served there too), but it has also been so incredibly nice not to be trying to manage getting children, plates of food, and sloshing drinks to the table, and then popping up constantly to get one of the kids something. Though the food at the buffet is outstanding, so far Julie and I have yet to be able to eat a buffet meal at the same time. After finding a table and plopping children down, one of us goes to serve ourselves and a couple children, then the other goes to get their food and the rest of the children’s food, only to return and begin our meal at a table where everyone else is already half-done eating. So, to be served means priceless time together: time to savor, to converse, to rest.
In addition to the fabulous family dining experience, the ship also has a free kids clubs for our two oldest and very affordable care for our youngest. On our first drop-off, none of the childcare staff batted an eye at special needs or two moms, which we’ve honestly come to expect over the years. All of our kids love the kid’s clubs, and the care and attention they receive there has been far above our expectations.
For the first time in years, Julie and I have been able to have adult time together! With all of our extended family out of state, we are so used to managing everything all on our own, only occasionally reaching out to our church communities, school communities, friends or family members for help for fear of breaking professional boundaries or overburdening. Ordinarily, we shy away from formal dining situations because sometimes it is a bit overwhelming to manage the needs of 3 children in that setting. And with our multiple jobs, if we want adult, peaceful, restful time, one of us exhausted parents has to give it to the other. To be served has been both uncomfortable and such a life-giving gift!
And maybe it would be disturbing if it became too comfortable. Maybe we are always supposed to remember that there is a time to serve and be served, a time to be a guest and a time to be a host, a time to be pampered and a time to pamper – that the roles are always reversible (or at least should be) and both are hard and life-giving in their own ways – that both done well require humility, grace, and love. As a pastor usually in the role of serving others, I never imagined that receiving service would feel so awkward. The only way I was truly able to let myself receive was to remind myself that the rest, energy, love, and life incredible people like Babu were pouring into me, I will turn around and pour into serving others.
I wonder if the discomfort I have felt at being served is anything like what the disciples felt that night Jesus tied a towel around his waist, got down on his knees and started to wash their feet. To enter the kin-dom of God you have to learn to both receive and give service, graciously, humbly, full of gratitude and joy. You cannot underestimate or overestimate your worth or how deserving you are, and you absolutely cannot take the servers for granted, for when we do we play into the exploitative systems around us. I wonder if after visiting so many places with him and always being the guests, never the hosts, the disciples had become so accustomed to service that they looked past the women, servants, and slaves? Did Jesus need to remind them of the humanity, the dignity, the value of the servers around them? Maybe that is why at this last supper with them, he had them, a group of men, prepare the meal. I am glad that I am not so accustomed to service for servers to be invisible to me.
When Babu comes to our table, there is a human being no different from myself, probably much better than me, standing in front of me, serving me in such a selfless way, and it is humbling. When my child is cranky and throwing a fit every time I try to get them to eat a bite, Babu stops picks up the fork and hand-feeds a bite to my child (because, of course, my kid will eat it when he offers). I've never experienced anything quite like this extravagant hospitality. Babu is teaching me every night how to be an even better server. Hospitality is certainly an art and an orientation away from self and toward the other. Babu, thank you for teaching me even more what that looks like. I see Christ's likeness in you. You probably don’t even know what a gift your service has been to this tired mom and pastor. I hope some day to have the opportunity to return the favor. At the very least, I will pass it forward.
A few people, looking at the photos we have posted of our trip, have commented that this ship looks like heaven, and indeed many of us fancy heaven as a divine, all-inclusive cruise of sorts where we will be waited on hand and foot. What we forget, however, is that one who will be serving us will be God God’s self. It will be uncomfortable and difficult for us to let God serve us like that. Maybe that is what Jesus meant to remind the disciples of by tying a towel around his own waist; that until they learned how to receive service and treat the server with the same respect and gratitude that they show to the divine, they were not ready for God’s realm. Perhaps also that the kin-dom, the beloved community of God’s dreams – is not a place where we will only be served, but where we too will serve those who are royalty in God’s realm, the blessed ones, the last and the least of these – the ones the world discounts and renders invisible. I haven’t necessarily seen the kingdom of God in the many instances I’ve witnessed of rich, straight, white people being served on this cruise, but I have seen little moments of heaven when kids like our Jacob, so often rejected and judged by the world, are treated like princes.
When someone broken-down by life enters my church, my home or just encounters me on the street, I want them to experience the kind of humble, selfless, dignity-bestowing, life-giving, rest-making, extravagant hospitality and pampering that Babu, his assistant Chester, and the other staff have taught in our short time aboard this ship. We all could learn something from training in the hospitality industry!