When we moved to Little Rock, Nancy launched her traditional “meet the neighbors” campaign. One day, after I got home from work, she told me about her visit to Elizabeth Howitt who lived directly behind us. “She is the most amazing woman! She is a remarkable seamstress, a vibrant woman, and a delight to talk to. She is 80-something years old and a widow from Scotland.” Nancy had already fallen in love with her.
Nancy suggested that, since Elizabeth’s family all lived far away, we become a support system for her. I agreed.
Every week during the summer we mowed her lawn. She baked us royal biscuits. We painted her living room. She made us dinner. We made repairs around her house. She told us stories and taught us expressions from her homeland. “I looked at the yard and felt like a dog with two tails.” “My bag was packed like a dog’s breakfast.” “I lit the heater and took a bath and oh! I wouldn’t call the queen my cousin.” “Bob’s your uncle.”
She would sweep up the dust in the alleyway to add as fill dirt to her yard. She ate steel-cut oats daily for breakfast. She walked laps within her home. She read and reread hundreds of books from the library. We were amazed by her breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for life.
What a vibrant person!
When we went out for a burger or a barbecue sandwich, we took her along. Though she was a tiny little person, she ate more than either of us.
She learned about our family and kept track of each person even though they lived across the country. We celebrated holidays together. She introduced us to her family when they visited.
What started as a service project became something quite different. We became dear friends with Elizabeth.
My beloved Nancy wanted to share the gospel with her. Elizabeth listened attentively and courteously. But, as a witness to decades of religious fighting, she was not interested.
After six years of beautiful friendship, Elizabeth became ill. She was found to have an advanced case of cancer. She died within a month of the diagnosis. It was then that we fully appreciated how much she had changed our lives. We missed her stories, her friendship, her zeal, her “biscuits.” We missed her.
Before she died she gave to us a lovely chair that she had upholstered. The chair sits proudly in our living room.
Service—heartfelt service—changes people. It enlarges hearts and enriches lives. Atop the pyramid of happiness-building recommendations of science is this one: Serve. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us; God has been recommending service from the beginning of time. The One who washed His disciples dirty and reluctant feet commanded us to love as He loves.
Of course, there is a potential problem with serving. Some of us feel quite guilty if we do not show up for every service project, assist in every move, and visit every widow. So, we totter between exhaustion and guilt. That approach to service is not healthy.
I love the idea that we bring a willingness to every invitation to serve. We want to serve. We gladly serve. Yet we carefully follow God’s direction. For some neighbors we offer fellowship and a plate of cookies. Every once in a while, God will send an Elizabeth into our lives. We seize the blessing when it comes.
God will call us to serve many people in many ways.
We thank God for Elizabeth Howitt. We can’t wait to visit with her again and enjoy Royal Biscuits in heaven.
Invitation: As you read these words, whom do you feel God is calling you to serve? What would He have you do for them?
Seligman’s Authentic Happiness reviews the great research on happiness. I heartily recommend it. (He has written a more recent book, Flourish. I believe that Authentic Happiness is a stronger book.)