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Like so many Americans, I spent roughly twenty years going to the in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Three hours (round-trip) road time, thirty minutes of food (scrumptious and savory), three more hours of watching football (which I don’t enjoy) and talking about the weather (how ‘bout that snow?)

Since my marriage ended, none of my friends believe me when I say I don’t need “a place to go” for the holidays.  For a while I tried to explain it, saying that what I really wanted was to find a substantive way of giving thanks to God for all the blessings in my life.  They’d still look at me with sad-puppy eyes and say, “Awww, don’t be alone for the holidays! Come eat with us.”

As much as I appreciate these invitations, I’ve started my own tradition: “Holiday Helping.”  I’ve helped out at the food bank, the home for unwed mothers, and the cancer society – so I’m surrounded by strangers during the holidays.  Not a relative in sight for miles around.

And you know what?  I’ve come to really treasure my time alone (even though it’s always busy and noisy) and consider it living prayer to serve this way.  In fact, I talk to God in my head the whole time.  “Lord, bless and bolster this child of yours.  Give him nourishment with this meal.  While you’re at it, please provide him with new shoes.”

This is a true gift, and it all started because I had nowhere to go for the holidays and felt all alone in the world.  I can tell you this:  not only do I no longer feel alone; I know that sometimes prayers are answered in ways you don’t expect.  So when I run into an old friend and see that tilted-head/sad-eye look coming at me, and I can feel that “pity” turkey-day invitation coming, I can look her in the eye and say it like I mean it.

Thanks.  I’m good.

When I worked at a pharma company years ago, there was a policy of providing employees with two “volunteer” days per month.  We would literally show up for work, put on an Orange “Company Volunteer” shirt, get in the van and go out and do work in the community.  It was really a good feeling to be able to give back so concretely, and have the company support us in that way.

Once, we tore out wall-to-wall carpeting and painted the living room of a home for unwed mothers.  Another time, we sorted clothing to be given out to the homeless.  I’ve also volunteered on my own through the years for many different charities and organizations – so many that, for a while, I kept a separate resume with just the names and dates of my volunteer service.  After some time, I stopped keeping track.  I wasn’t quite sure who I was saving the information for… maybe for my son, so he’d realize the importance of giving back.  But to be honest, just as he doesn’t share my faith, he doesn’t share my philanthropic impulses either.

So why do we engage in acts of service to humanity?  Does God expect it of those of us who profess to walk in faith?  There is a biblical passage that negates this notion.  “For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves:  it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9, KJV.

Followers of Islam are exhorted to do good deeds during Ramadan, and in Judaism, there is an obligation to help others, “Tzedekah.”  Most religions make good works central to their practice.  But what does God have to say about the subject?  This morning, when I asked God, He said, “Use your best judgment.”  Not really.  But it is what I’m going to end up doing, as I do with every subject too big for my tiny human brain to fully comprehend.  I’m betting that what God would say is that I already know the answer innately.

Every time I’ve volunteered to help somebody else, I ended up helping myself.  Even if I’m just encouraging someone to follow a dream, I get something out of it – a sense of being able to give someone a pat on the back on the road of life.  They’re not asking me to sponsor them as they learn how to sculpt or do interpretive dance.  Maybe just an “attaboy” or an “attagirl” as they pursue a dream they’ve always harbored and held dear.  It only took me a moment, but I know that service to humanity is service to God, and when I help my fellow man, I help myself, and get closer to my Maker in the process.

So I say, reach out when you can.  It may not be mandatory in God’s eyes, but it’s a blessing that you get to give and keep at the same time.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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