As we approach Thanksgiving, we enter the season when a lot of us start to think about volunteer opportunities for our family. Perhaps we’re trying to inoculate our children from the entitlement that can creep in with all those holiday gifts. Or perhaps we’re trying to give back in a spirit of gratitude for all we’ve been given. Or perhaps we’re trying to put some muscle where our money is, as we dole out charitable gifts before the end of the tax year. Whatever our reasons, this time of year seems to be when a lot of us look to volunteer our time and talent in the community.

In sifting through the dozens of articles about what to give and how to do it, I came across this piece a few years ago, which describes one woman’s experiences on both sides of the giving equation. She writes about her first experience as a recipient of donations at the food pantry, admitting that she could only set foot in the door when her “desperation overshadowed [her] pride.” She was embarrassed to be receiving this type of assistance, but grateful for the food. Months later, as a donor to the food pantry, she bristled at others’ suggestions that people who receive such donations wouldn’t know what to do with high-end ingredients. She felt the weight of those heavy expectations, that recipients of generosity should behave a certain way.

This year, I read a piece in Real Simple magazine (an unfortunately-named publication: making my own centerpiece while perfectly wrapping the perfect gift seems anything but “real simple” to me). The writer, Karen Weese, very honestly and openly confesses her disappointment in some volunteer experiences, and she’s embarrassed by her own reactions and expectations.

oldgolds-463x640When I was 16, my church youth group volunteered to serve meals in an inner-city soup kitchen. We washed dishes and doled out beans and mashed potatoes to a long line of homeless men. Most of them didn’t make eye contact or express more than a mumbled thanks. Afterward, the pastor asked for our reflections. The room was silent; and then, finally, one of the girls said softly, “I didn’t really like being here. I guess…” She paused, embarrassed. “…I wanted them to be more grateful.” I cringed—because I’d been thinking the same thing.

She continues:

In hoping for a certain kind of volunteering experience (even without realizing that we’re hoping for it), we’re burdening the people we’re trying to help. Asking them to thread the needle—be appreciative but not desperate—is asking too much when we shouldn’t be asking anything at all. Sometimes what looks like sullenness is actually shame or pride. And bravado is just shame in a big, loud hat. Either way, it’s none of our business.

I still catch myself wishing for magic moments of gratitude this time of year; I treasure volunteer experiences where I feel like I’ve made a difference. But overall I’ve moved the bar. Now I feel that not making someone feel worse on a particular day qualifies as a victory. And even if I occasionally forget, deep down I know the best gift I can give as a volunteer: generosity devoid of expectation.

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“Generosity devoid of expectation” seems like the very definition of grace to me. When we’re trying to thread our own needle between appreciation and desperation, the burden can feel unbearable. Grace, on the other hand, has already been gifted by a broken body on a cross. We don’t have to pay for it with a specific kind of gratitude. Nothing is required of us to receive that grace and mercy, which we haven’t earned because we can’t, no matter how many volunteer hours we’ve logged or how many canned goods we’ve donated.

This isn’t to say that God doesn’t see or delight in works of charity. But if we’re looking to the recipients of our generosity to behave in a certain way, we’re asking something of them that’s not required of any of us as recipients of grace and mercy. Perhaps Mockingbird’s Law and Gospel says it best:

“The reality of God’s grace is so radical that we often find ourselves trying to domesticate it, unconsciously (or not), imposing all manner of fine print about what constitutes acceptance or rejection. We pontificate about the proper response to the Gift, as if God is subject to our code of manners. At Christmas, for example, what if you forget to send a thank-you note immediately? What if, when you do, it’s a fairly shabby piece of work? What if you never send one? Will the gift be revoked? Again, any gift premised on the recipient’s ‘correct’ response to it is not much of a gift at all. Indeed, as most married couples can attest, the more pressure we place on the recipient to react a certain way, the less likely they are to do so.

Fortunately, while Christ relates to us, he is not us. No amount of fearful insistence on recompense can make this gift any less of one (Jn 21). We do not possess the power to invalidate divine generosity, or renegotiate the terms of our acceptance. The Giver is good and so is the Gift.”