A friend of mine was upset. She'd been relying on someone for help and it never arrived.
"I don't know why I bother being a good person sometimes," she told me, her voice heavy with hurt. "Paying it forward doesn't seem to work."
It's a familiar refrain. Before my current job (author, among other occupations), I worked in a large Parish that hosted a food pantry and always among the truly needy were those who pulled up in fancy cars, stepped up in new boots, and played with the latest in cell phones while waiting their turn in line for a bag of groceries. The food pantry workers were all volunteers, people who'd seen their own families grow in relative health and prosperity and saw this as a way of giving back. But the imbalance would get to them, too.
"I don't know what good it is giving food to someone who's spending their welfare money on phones and boots," one said to me, after a long, frustrating day. "It's just seems silly."
My sister volunteers at a soup kitchen. She's not even 18 yet and already she was frustrated by what she sees.
"The same people return all the time!" she told me, after working there a year. "It's not that I don't want to help. It's that I don't think I am."
Justice, it seems, clashes with acts of mercy.
It's hard to work in charity, giving only to see it seemingly thrown away on the ungrateful. I've helped out in charitable endeavors, and know what it's like to give, only to find that not only did the person not need it, but is spreading the news of your generosity to all their other friends in the area.
It's easy to give up. It's tempting to say, 'That's it, that's all there is. This well is dry.' To wash my hands of the matter and go on my way.
But as I finished the conversation with my friend, a song came on the radio. What is Christmas? it asked. It's all about a savior, wrapped in a manger.
And there was the answer: What would Jesus do? Or rather, what did He do?
He gave first. Before we were worthy. Before we even knew we needed it. Before we were willing to accept it. He gave first. He gave and He still gives. And then He said that we were to do the same.
It's a tough lesson. I much prefer to give when I get that nice response - the grateful smile, the satisfaction of a need assuaged, that Superwoman feeling I, and only I, could have rescued this person in their hour of need. It's a good, comfortable feeling, but it's not supposed to be why I give. I should do it anyway.
My friend does: naturally, effortlessly, without even thinking about it - she's already helping out one of those that had let her down. The good people at the food pantry do: long hours in a basement, sorting stock and filling out government reports. My sister does: cooking, cleaning, serving all with a smile and an invitation to seconds. They may talk their frustrations out on me, but when the conversation ends and that call of need come, they don't hesitate. They don't qualify. They don't wince. They don't look for the accolades. They just answer. (If you worry that the world has no more heroes, I would suggest that you check out your local food pantry, soup kitchen, or that helpful neighbor right down the hall. Chances are very good that you'll find them there.)
Being Christian is not about paying it forward and hoping for an earthly return. It's about giving as we have received - freely and generously.
That's the true Christmas spirit.