by Becky De Oliveira

Just before Christmas a few years back, as I was struggling to keep about a thousand balls in the air, my brother phoned in a panic. His company required all employees to complete eight hours of volunteer work each year. It was nearly the end of the year and he had nothing. “I need you to find some volunteer work for us,” he said.

Us?” I asked. “Funny, I didn’t realize I worked for your company.”

“You have to do it with me. Obviously!”

Obviously. My brother is an extrovert and a youngest child. He doesn’t do anything alone. But I didn’t mind the idea of volunteering with him—in fact it sounded like fun. I found a delightfully perverse opportunity for us: Gift-wrapping for orphans.

Dan is legendary in our family for his horrible gift-wrapping skills. Many of us specifically request that our gifts be wrapped by him instead of his wife because we enjoy marveling at the particular “skill” it takes to wrap a package so poorly. After much analysis, I have determined that it’s a combination of too much wrapping paper, too much tape, and, well, clumsiness of the hands. When I informed him—gleefully—that we would be spending two mornings (December 23 and December 24) wrapping gifts for frantic last-minute shoppers at a popular local mall, he took a deep breath. “I can do this,” he said.

Now I’m pretty good at wrapping things and I enjoy it, so this seemed like an optimal
volunteer experience for me. But as it turns out, the situation was rigged in a multitude of ways that did not play to my strengths. The charity had a huge assortment of boxes—most of them in sizes that proved irrelevant for the majority of wrapping situations. They had only four kinds of gift wrap and no ribbons—only cheap and ugly bows. The onslaught of customers was relentless and most of them brought gifts that were oddly shaped, like a baseball bat and glove or a box with a handle on the outside, messing up the perfect square or rectangular shape I prefer.

Gift-wrapping for orphans proved to be a challenge for both me and my brother—and his problems quickly became myproblems. He received a brief tutorial on wrapping, and managed to do a respectable job in bursts, but then he’d suddenly call for me in a panic, confessing that a package had “got away from him,” and I’d have to leave whatever I was doing to fix his package while a nervous shopper looked on. On the second day, the organizers of the charity moved him to the cash register where he could best use his corporate skills as a financial analyst. One of the directors was an older man who had lost his hand years before in an accident. “When a guy with a hook questions your manual dexterity, you know you have problems,” my brother admitted.

The first day was bad, but Christmas Eve felt like pure punishment. The shoppers were
insane. One man brought something like 30 giftscylindrical or in other weird shapes—and I had to wrap all of them myself. He’d also had some kind of mishap in the parking lot—dropped his bags in a mud puddle—so most of his gifts were wet and I didn’t have paper towels with which to dry them. I resorted to wiping each one with the bottom of my shirt. Nearly all my customers were like this. Only one shopper—who presented a perfectly boxed iPad—was a pleasure to deal with and I found myself congratulating him on the genius of the gift. It could have been anythingso long as it came in a neat box. At the end of that day, my brother and I bought eggnog lattes and collapsed on the end of the dock on the edge of Lake Washington and stared at the water, utterly spent.

“I feel good about that,” my brother said finally. “I mean it was totally screwed up.”

“Totally,” I echoed tonelessly.

“But we did it. We did good in the world. Let’s do it again next year, if you’re in town.”

“You’re nuts,” I said.

But he was right. Sometimes it’s fun and rewarding to dosomething—whether or not you can even do it particularly well. Perhaps the quest for excellence comes down to a simple matter of what you want to be excellent at.The gifts were not wrapped perfectly—particularly not the gifts wrapped by my brother—but we did raise money to provide an overseas orphanage with goats. And while many people chose to spend Christmas Eve doing all kinds of other things, we gave up our free time for this act of service. That was a form of excellence.

What do I want to be excellent at? The Bible tells us, “Whatever you do, work at it wholeheartedly as though you were doing it for the Lord and not merely for people” (Colossians 3:23, ISV). How do you work when you’re working for God? Wholeheartedly.What does that mean? Perfectly? Flawlessly? In relentless accordance with your principles? I don’t think so. I think it means what it sounds like it means: With your whole heart. With love. With pride. With the knowledge that you are a cog in a great machine,and that by doing your part faithfully and gentlyyou help to create a bit of heaven on earth.


Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.