A friend of mine, Nicki Larson, was Relief Society President of her ward a few years ago and did something I find remarkable.  Every week she made two loaves of bread.  She kept one for her own family, and then knelt down and prayed, “Heavenly Father, who needs my bread?”  And every week, she would feel a prompting about which person or family most needed the other loaf.

Not long ago I was the keynote speaker at an LDS Women’s Retreat in Wisconsin.  A bubbly Filipino woman picked me up at the airport and as we drove along, she shared with me her policy to ask God every day, to point her in the direction of someone who needed her help.  One time she bought a casket for a grieving mother who couldn’t afford to bury her child.  Another time she and her daughter had stopped by a bakery to purchase a birthday cake for a friend, and suddenly blurted, “Make it two.”  Her daughter asked who the second cake would be for, and her mother simply shrugged and said, “We’ll find out.”  And they did; the second recipient was stunned and cried tears of joy that someone remembered her when she was feeling quite forgotten.

Both of these women have learned to “channel in” and live so close to the Lord that they are actually useful to him!  He knows he can count on them to follow inspiration and make time to serve his children.  They are taking to heart the Savior’s counsel to “feed my sheep.”  Both are busy women with children, careers, callings, and every other excuse to neglect this kind of sacrifice.  But they make service a priority.

Barbara Sorensen was a Relief Society President in Salt Lake City, and my cousin.  At her funeral, her bishop shared something he had noticed about her.  She would sit in the back of the chapel during Sacrament meeting, and study the sisters in attendance, looking for someone who seemed lonely, their shoulders slumped, their countenance despairing.  Or a harried mother.  Or anyone who simply needed a hug.  She was in tune to her ward sisters and was constantly looking for ways to ease their burdens.  Here was a woman who didn’t come to church “to see if I can get something out of it” but who was determined to put something in.

Each of these women found the secret to happiness—to turn outward, instead of inward.  They’ve made it their life’s focus to help those around them, and they work hand in hand with the Lord to lift the weak and bless the weary.

None of them whine about being offended, though none of us escapes the thoughtless remark, or even the intended slight from time to time.  None of them complain.  None of them lack energy or enthusiasm.  Joy follows them like bees to a garden.  Even their step is light.

And age is not relevant—if we turn outward to focus our efforts on lifting those around us, we have purpose in life even in declining years when physical abilities may wane.  I once lived in a ward where an elderly sister would call every ward member on their birthday and read them a little poem she had written for them.  Even a shut-in could do that.  Attitude always trumps ability.

Have you ever prayed for God to “help the poor and needy”?  Does that absolve us from action because we’ve expressed a second or so of compassion?  “Help the poor and needy” is one of those LDS phrases that works its way into our prayers as often as “nourish and strengthen our bodies.”  But how, exactly, is God to do this?  Should he ring their doorbell and offer to iron their piles of laundry?  Should he take their kids on an outing so a new mom can focus on her newborn?  Should he add some cash to the fast offerings so they can receive welfare?  Should he pop in at a disaster site and shovel mud or rebuild a row of homes?

We are the ones who must help the poor and needy.  It isn’t as if God is unable to do any of these things; of course we know God can do anything.  But he’s counting on us to step up and serve our fellowman. We are to be his hands and feet, and even his heart, in reaching out to love and cheer the discouraged.

Instead of praying for God to do it, we should present our plan and ask for his help with it.  We should ask him, “Who needs my bread?”  “Who needs my skills in writing up a resume?”  “Who needs my help getting their car running?”  “Who needs me to tutor their child?”  “Who needs me to stop their roof from leaking?”  “Who needs me to buy shoes for their children?”  “Who needs medicine?”  “Who needs a caring visit, just to listen?”  “Who needs some wise marriage counsel?” It might even be someone in your own family.

You know your own talents and abilities.  You know what you can offer to the poor and needy.  Maybe you can join hundreds of volunteers to bring water or supplies to an impoverished country far from your own home.  Or maybe you can simply encourage the kid next door, and tell him what a great job he did mowing his lawn.  It might be one of those compliments he keeps wrapped in silk, somewhere in his heart, and brings it out from time to time to remember the moment when somebody cared.

It only requires a small adjustment, the slight turn of a knob, really, to begin each day with an outlook that looks out.  When we are constantly in “service mode” our own problems diminish, God blesses us with clarity in reaching decisions, and we find that we actually matter to those around us.  We become part of God’s granting of miracles to people who may have lost all hope. We really can pray for those inspired moments when we turn left instead of right, or we pause to speak with someone and discover we can help them.

Can you think of any better way to thank God for his blessings, or to follow the admonition to love one another?   Make two loaves of bread this week, then pray and see what happens.

Cruise with Joni and her husband, Bob, to Spain, Italy, and France May 12-19, 2012.  Super low rates!  For more information, go to jonihilton.com.

Joni Hilton has written 17 books, three award-winning plays, and is a frequent public speaker and a former TV talk show host. Her latest book, “Funeral Potatoes– The Novel,” has just been scheduled for publication by Covenant Communications. She is also the author of the “As the Ward Turns” series, “The Ten-Cow Wives’ Club,” and “The Power of Prayer.” Hilton is a frequent writer for “Music & The Spoken Word,” many national magazines, and can be reached at her website, jonihilton.com. She is married to TV personality Bob Hilton, is the mother of four, and currently serves as Relief Society President in her ward in northern California.