"No strings attached." Unfortunately for many of us, that phrase probably raises a red flag.
We live in a world of hidden agendas and illegible fine print. Unconditional giving, though not impossible, is not as common as it could be. How often do we give of ourselves - whether it be a gift of money, food, time, whatever - and expect nothing from the other person in return? How often do we do something or give something simply because it is the right thing to do?
Everyone will answer differently, of course. For me, the answer to that question is "not often enough." There is always room for improvement. And improvement comes from experience.
One of my favorite - and most insightful - experiences with unconditional giving happened when my son and I first started staffing the food pantry at church. I liked the fact people had only to be hungry to get food from the shelves. The food pantry is unconditional, no questions asked, but this was not my main focus at the time. As much as I enjoyed chatting with folks, I was mostly relieved not to have to probe into their personal lives. And I hate to admit this, but there was a skeptical voice in the back of my mind asking the nagging question, "Could any of our visitors be taking advantage of this free food? Do they really need to be here?"
My then 3-year-old son and I volunteered often. He loved watching our visitors fill bags with groceries. He would see sometimes shy, sometimes outgoing people shake my hand, say "thank you" or "God bless you," and occasionally give me a hug.
I asked my son: "Who visits the pantry?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "People who need food." Through his 3-year-old eyes, the families who got groceries were no different from us. He didn't see anything other than people who needed food. He didn't question whether or not they deserved it.
I watched my young son give so easily. So joyfully. The skeptical voice in my head faded to a whisper. I stopped the nagging questions and just started giving.
So far my son has not started to ask questions about whether or not people deserve help. But someday he may question giving. He may learn the hard way that giving can bring heartache, when your efforts are unappreciated or when you learn that someone has wrongly taken advantage of your kindness. These things do happen. My prayer for him is that these questions, and heartaches, never dampen his spirit of giving. I pray that giving unconditionally always makes sense to him.
These days I get to watch both of my boys (one 6 years old and the other one 2) fill the food pantry shelves. Their youthful enthusiasm is a reminder of how simple and fulfilling it is to give - no strings attached.
Becky Corson is a member of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.