This Friday marks the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. People will show up at all hours of the night in order to cash in on the “Black Friday” sales, and then shop, shop, shop. In order to “successfully” do Christmas, we are told, we have to spend hours in traffic, hours in stores, and lots on money in order to make everyone “happy.”
In the meantime, according to a recent survey, 1 out of 3 people say they will return at least one gift they receive; we end up producing 25% more garbage between Thanksgiving and Christmas; and our stress levels, waist sizes, and credit card debt go up, while the meaningful time spent with our family often goes down.
Now think of your fondest Christmas memories. What are they? I would be willing to guess that they probably don’t involve gifts that you received or gave. I know mine don’t. Sure there is the bike I received one Christmas, and a piece of art I created for my brother, but my fondest Christmas memories are about time spent with family, of driving around Phoenix looking at Christmas lights, and worshipping on Christmas Eve. These are things that cannot be bought at the store, but these are the things I treasure the most.
Last year after my Thanksgiving sermon, someone came up to Pastor Joel and said they had more stuff then they needed and didn’t really need to get any more for Christmas. They wondered what the church could do to run a program in which the money that would normally be spent on presents could instead go to charities. We discussed this request during a staff meeting, and while we were in favor of the idea, we did not have the time to implement such a program last year.
But following this request, I started looking around for something that might meet this idea, and came across a program called Advent Conspiracy. Their video, which was shown at the beginning of worship last Sunday (and can also be found here), had me hooked immediately, and so I started doing a little more looking into the program. But I still had some concerns. How was the program received in congregations? What did it look like? How did people undertake it?
In January, I attended a conference in New Orleans and asked other clergy in attendance what they knew about the program. Every single pastor I talked with who had implemented Advent Conspiracy couldn’t say enough about the program and what it had meant to their congregation. In one of the videos created by the three pastors who started the program, they said “kids get this program much better than adults do,” and that is also what every pastor told me. Unprompted they all said, “Kids get it.” They understand that Christmas is about Jesus, not about them.
When I came back from the conference, I presented the video to the staff, the commissions and the church council, who were all enthusiastic and supported us making Advent Conspiracy part of our Christmas tradition. But there is still some confusion for some, so let’s start out with what Advent Conspiracy is not.
It is not a plot to destroy Christmas or to stop you from giving presents. Santa will still be coming to my house this year. Giving is important, but what is being given also matters. Each Christmas when I was growing up, my father received a new pair of Johnston and Murphy shoes for work. He knew what he was going to get, it was important to him, and it was also meaningful to my mother who gave them to him. This was an important part of our Christmas celebration. There is enormous love expressed in giving.
Advent Conspiracy is also not about not receiving presents. If giving is important, receiving is also important, and there is a lot that goes into receiving a gift. When I was a kid, getting socks and underwear was the “dreaded gift.” Now I look forward to getting these things. These are important presents to receive from family members who give them to me. If these are things your family does for Christmas and it is meaningful to you, please keep doing them. Do what makes Christmas special for you, and get rid of, or at least minimize, those things which make this season a hassle and a time to dread or to just get through.
This program is not designed to make you feel guilty about how you have celebrated Christmas. Instead, Advent Conspiracy is intended to return meaning back to Christmas, to move us away from the hyper-consumerism that seems to be expected of us. It seeks to refocus our attention on the coming of God on earth through the person of Jesus, to help us focus on the things that really matter in our lives and to give us a time in which we express our love for friends, family and others through things other than simply spending and accumulating.
In this issue of the Chronicle you will find several “alternative” gift ideas. Use them as you would like, adapt them to fit your needs or ignore them all together. Lots of other ideas can be found at www.rethinkingchristmas.com. If you have gift ideas you would like to share with the rest of the congregation, please contact Pastor John, and they may be included in future issues.
What the pastors who started Advent Conspiracy also said is that in setting out to celebrate God’s gift to us in the person of Christ, we then also have to understand what Christ calls us to do. One of those things is to reach out to people in need, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And so, as part of Advent Conspiracy, they decided to ask their congregations to take some of the money they weren’t spending on presents and instead to give some of it to those in need.
The outreach commission has chosen to split any money that the church receives for Advent Conspiracy 50-50 between Living Water International, which drills wells around the world to provide people with clean running water, and our school supplies project for the John Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester. There is also a list of other charities supported directly by this congregation, a gift list from UMCOR, as well as other charities listed in this week’s issue of the Chronicle.
If you choose to make a donation in someone’s name as a gift this year, remember that this is about them, not about you. I have a family member who really doesn't care about what’s happening to people in the developing world, and so a gift to Heifer or to UMCOR would not be a good gift for him. Supporting these organizations would be about me. But, he does care deeply about the military, and so a gift to the Wounded Warrior Project or to Local Heroes, would be meaningful to him.
I encourage you to join us for our Wednesday night Advent programs which begin on December 1, at 6 pm. We start with a meal shared together, then at 6:30 the children will head to the chapel for a special program, the 3rd graders will go to a class about the Bible, and the adults will gather for a brief time of worship and will then explore the four focus areas of Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.
Whatever you do this Advent and Christmas season, I hope it is meaningful and important to you and your families. As Dr. Seuss so wisely told us, “Maybe Christmas… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”