I love to veg out with a magazine. Doesn’t really matter what kind, just something brainless that i can scan through without giving it much attention. This time of year, I especially love the nov/dec issues of women’s magazines. For better or worse, lots of recipes, pretty pictures, and holiday inspiration. (crafty things i will never actually make myself, but sure nice stuff to look at when someone else has done the work.)
I’ve noticed a trend, not just in magazine world, but also on morning talk shows, web sites, blog spots and…well, everywhere. Lists of “ways to serve others during the holidays!” Should be right up my proverbial alley, right?
Here’s why it’s usually not…first of all, just like we should practice gratitude, even when it’s not #trending; so also should people of faith–and people of good conscience–be in service to others all year long. Volunteerism and the work of justice should not be as seasonal as our centerpieces and flavored coffees. It diminishes discipleship to…well, the kind of stuff i like to glance at in a magazine while enjoying a glass of wine.
Furthermore, the ‘ways to help others’ listed in most of these venues are really just ways to help yourself feel good about having plenty, while knowing that others do not. Case in point:the women’s magazine in question listed three ways to reach out and serve this Christmas and one of them was–i kid you not–to host a cookie baking/decorating party and then take the stuff you make with your friends and donate it to a homeless shelter.
Now, why should a Christian minister take issue with feeding the poor? I don’t. But keep in mind that: 1–most homeless/working poor facilities have pretty strict food handling rules. Anything you make at home and drop off will probably be greeted with a smile and then promptly tossed in the garbage. And 2: baking cookies, while definitely a kindness, does not cost you anything. It might be an act of thoughtfulness, but it is not an act of justice. Truly feeding the poor, as Jesus asks us to do, requires a little more effort and soul investment.
Now, what we can do to help said homeless shelter is write them a big fat check. That will go a lot farther than a tray of cookies. Or better still, go and put in a few hours of hands-on work. Clean, cook, serve, wash dishes, sort donated clothing…and then, once the meal has been served–this is the hard part–sit at a table and visit with the folks we’ve been serving. Transformation happens at the table, and not at home in the comfort of our own kitchens.By all means, bake the cookies. Then maybe take them to an elderly neighbor and–here it is again–stay and visit for an hour. See if they need some light bulbs changed, some groceries picked up, the gutters cleaned.
My point being, there is certainly no harm in baking cookies, or in wanting to share some holiday cheer with those less fortunate. I think the real harm is in confusing kindness with service; or sympathy with justice. All are important parts of the practice of faith, and i realize that sometimes the simplest acts of kindness can be, in themselves, transforming. But so often, we miss the opportunity to connect at the most basic human level, and we instead drop off our box at Goodwill and check off our ‘good deed for the season.’ We forget that service to the poor means also understanding poverty, at its core, and knowing the full humanness of those we seek to serve.
I’m encouraged by the many ‘eat/shop local’ memes i’ve seen going in social media lately. In this season for ‘doing unto others,’ let’s translate that grassroots spirit to even our acts of service. Before you donate, or bake, or write a check, ask yourself two questions: will this touch someone’s life? and does it have the potential to transform my own? If you can’t answer yes to either category, then it is probably good, but not gospel. By all means, do it anyway…bake the cookies, donate the used stuff, etc, because kindness itself has value. But then, go back to the kitchen and try again. Conversion happens at the table–and if it’s real, if it’s just, if it’s good news, we’ll find the change happening, above all, within our very selves.
When in doubt, you can always give to the Week of Compassion, and know that your gift–however small or large–is working to for provide basic human needs in ways that truly change lives, and transform the world.