Being back after an extended time away always gives me the eerie feeling of having one foot on the dock and the other in a boat that's come untied. Maybe that's not a great metaphor, but a part of me is still in Carlsbad, and another part is trying valiantly to adjust to Rosthern. For one thing, spring is approaching very reluctantly here, and the mounds of snow and cold temperatures after living in a summer place are hard to adjust to. Furthermore, Carlsbad was so easy going as regards responsibilities; for a while, we had some volunteer work, some housekeeping and not much else in that vein. Here there are responsibilities of many kinds: church, library, Writers Group, conference, social, etc. etc. on top of the odd bit of voluntary work and a great deal more housekeeping. Many of you are travelers too, and you probably know first hand what I'm talking about.
A friend at coffee row flew down to Alabama to work for 7 days on a Mennonite Disaster Service assignment. These people work a lot harder for the time they're there than we did in Carlsbad. Either way, it's a long way to go to do - not very much. In 7 days, a crew of 4 could probably strip damaged gyproc from one house and replace it, and maybe shingle the roof. It took a crew of four in Carlsbad about 6 days to side one house and storage shed. One sometimes wonders if locals couldn't have finished that house; they had done everything up to the siding, after all. As I said, it's a long way to go to accomplish relatively little.
But there's another side to it. What are my choices of things to do with my time? How can I budget my energies in order to do the most good in this world? I've concluded that it's not so much what's achieved by volunteerism that matters, it's more important that people are outgoing and active, both for their physical and their mental/spiritual well-being. A lot of volunteers are retired, and the worst thing to do when you retire is to shut down, say no to physical and mental work. Most of our volunteering is done for our good, and some benefit occasionally accrues to the recipients.
There remains, of course, that old conundrum surrounding the measuring of the "good" in an act. Most of us would applaud the act of giving as in, for instance, a church group giving Christmas cheer baskets to welfare recipients. Social Darwinists and die hard Capitalists would say that these acts do more harm than good. Our economic structures in North America assume that people will participate in the marketplace where supply and demand set a price that is fair, and everyone exchanges goods and services in this environment. Social Darwinists might say that feeding the weak perpetuates weakness, even rewards it, like interfering in the deer population to ensure that even the spindliest buck is allowed to breed. Both the Capitalists and the Socialists would probably agree that if you do things for a needy person, you remove his need to strive for it and thereby deny him the right to grow through that struggle.
I'm not naive enough to believe that what I did, for instance, to help a couple in Carlsbad renovate their house did any significant amount of "good." The time I spent with fantastic people working on that, however, did me considerable good, I think.
As a Christian, I can't sidestep Christ's admonitions to love my neighbour, and I don't know of a better way to do this than to do what I can to relieve his stress and help him supply his basic needs. However, I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Handing over a meal without any expectations or replacing the shingles on a roof at no cost to the occupant don't necessarily fall into the category of "loving my neighbour." It might be far more loving to help my neighbour cook his own meal, might even be better to let him deal with a leaky roof for a time until he can afford to hire a workman. It's a question of discernment, good judgment. My impulse, I fear, is to roll up my sleeves, say "Step aside; I'm here to do this for you." I don't think I even know how to do the necessary work to evaluate "the good in an act" and to proceed on the basis of such an evaluation. We need to be better at that.
Meanwhile, it appears I've volunteered to edit a periodical of the Conference of Mennonites in Saskatchewan called News 'n Notes. I've also volunteered to put together an anthology of local writing and get it printed in two weeks, and I voluntarily act as historian for the Eigenheim Mennonite Church. I think all of these are "good acts" of volunteering, but I could be wrong. What do you think?