I learned this week about Operation Santa- an effort by the USPS to help fulfill the Christmas wishes of people whose letters to Santa go through the post office. It works similarly to the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree, but in this case, you can see the letters from the senders. And of course, you see many of the things you would expect to see- iPhone, tablets, clothes, dolls, toy cars, etc. But some of the letters are a little different. Like this one, for example: “Dear Santa, I live with my aunt and uncle and they work full time but [are] still having a hard time making end meet. I am a junior in high school. Our heater went out a couple of years ago but they don’t have the money to fix it. We really need a queen size heated blanket to keep warm in winter. Really need groceries also… Please help with an electric blanket and groceries please. -Cassie”
Or consider the letter that says “I need a twin bed. I don’t have one.” Or “My mama is going to court for eviction. Please help us keep our home or find us a home. Too cold for us to be outside.” One last one- “Santa, My name is Jacklynn. I started 6th grade this year. Boy is middle school tough. Santa, this year I will be grateful if you could help me make my Nana not sick no more. I live with my Nana for my whole life and she is real sick, she has heart failure. Maybe some comfy blankets and things will make her happy. If you can’t help make Nana better than maybe anything for Christmas will be nice because she can’t work anymore and we can’t just shop. I’m not a picky or selfish kid. I am 11 years old.”
Christmas is a nearly 100-billion-dollar industry in the United States. As a society, we spend money hand over fist to ensure that everything is just what we think it ought to be. The average American family spends somewhere between $850-1,000 on Christmas (statistics vary based on the source!). And yet, according to Bankrate survey from earlier this year, 57% of Americans say they could not cover an emergency of $1000 or more from their savings account. The juxtaposition is startling.
Recently I was complaining about needing to buy gifts for a couple of people who I don’t know well enough to have any idea of what to get them. I hate shopping for gifts that mean nothing to me or to the recipient. And I bet you do too! It’s not at all the point of Christmas. And yet, I did it. I found something, deemed it good enough, spent the money, and crossed their names off my list. But I have to wonder, is it actually necessary? Or is that just how it feels? And do they actually want the random things I chose for them? Or would it have been a better use of my money to send things to Jacklynn’s Nana to help keep her comfortable and boost her spirits?
The question of why we do what we do, why we put so much effort, time, and money into Christmas is tricky. Why do we think it must be this way? What is our goal? This week in the church office, Linda, Carol, and I were talking about the many times that our young kids were most excited about the least expensive gifts. And how sometimes the very best thing is the box itself! And yet each year, as a society, we wring ourselves dry, empty our wallets, and stress ourselves out trying to create a perfect Christmas, knowing full well that it is not realistic. There is no such thing. It’s only in commercials, Hallmark movies, and our memories that have been tainted by time and nostalgia.
If we could be really honest, we would come to see that the gifts we most want to give and the gifts we all need to receive cannot be bought at a store. You don’t need a gift card, you need hope. You don’t need new pots and pans, you need peace. You don’t need a new scarf, you need joy. You don’t need a piece of jewelry; you need to know you are loved. We all do. And those among us and our neighbors who are truly in need? Well, let’s just be honest about the proportion of that $100 billion dollars that is going to actually meet a true need.
That’s what Jesus is really talking about in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. All the stuff gets stored away, it gets old. The kids outgrow the toys, the clothes go out of style, the technology gets replaced. Don’t store up for yourselves more stuff; store up the treasures that really matter- kindness, generosity, peace, love.
Verses 22-23 say “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” If our eyes are on the wrong things at Christmas- if we’re so focused on creating a perfect holiday that we’re overwhelmed with spending, getting, looking the part, pretending to live in a coffee commercial, we are missing the true light of Advent and Christmas. How great will the disappointment be when after the presents are open, and the house is a mess, and the complaining begins, and everyone is asking for the gift receipt, and it’s all just over. How great the disappointment. How great the emptiness.
If we behave as if Christmas is only about picture perfect moments, beautiful decorations, dozens of gifts under our trees, then it cannot be about Jesus. Because Jesus’ story was none of those things. Jesus and his young parents were taking refuge in the hospitality that was offered. They were humble and poor. Their company was not close family and friends; it was strangers who stumbled in. The only thing that sparkled were stars. The only thing that shined were their tears. When we choose to put all our time, energy, and money into making a Christmas that is over-the-top, beautiful, and picture perfect, we cannot serve the real God who humbled himself and took on human form to become Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us.
This Advent, we as a church are gathering around the themes of the Advent Conspiracy- Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All. The idea is that together, with intentionality and care, we can let God move among us in a different way this Advent season, to prepare us for Jesus’ birth in a way that is more genuine, truer to God’s character. So, I want to offer three ways for us to spend less of our resources in some ways in order to give more of what really matters.
First, what if we spent less time this season? For some among us, our time is our most precious resource. So what if we decided to spend less of it in the hustle and bustle and more of it making real connections? Less time wrapping presents and more time looking into the eyes of the people we love? Less time cleaning and baking and more time laughing and telling stories? Less time at parties and events we really don’t want to attend and more time serving others, helping our neighbors? Less time on our phones and in front of our TV screens and more time getting to know the people in our lives?
And what about how we spend our energy this Advent? Could we make different choices there? This is the smallest, dumbest thing, but you know what I did this year? No bows or ribbons on any presents. And half of the presents I have wrapped are labeled in Sharpie marker rather than with my customary tags. I wonder how much time and energy I saved. Making special bows for each present is kind of exhausting and they just end up in the trash. And you know what I really believe? No one who receives a present from the Maurer family with no ribbons will care. In fact, maybe they’ll appreciate that I lowered the bar! But even if they do care, I don’t have to. I can be glad that rather than spend my energy tying bows, I made gingerbread houses with my kids.
Your thing probably isn’t bows and gingerbread houses, but I guarantee that there is some energy you could use in a way that would be more gratifying to you, more meaningful to those you love, more in line with the kind of Advent you long to have.
Finally, seriously consider spending less money this year. I know that seems impossible- people have expectations and prices are high. But what if you just tried to spend $5 less on every person you buy for. What could you do with the money you save? Or what if, rather than spend money on a gift, you handmake a gift? Or instead of more stuff, invite someone to spend time together doing something fun? Enjoying a meal together? Making a memory? What if, instead of giving something no one needs, you wrote them a letter sharing with them the things you love about them? How much more would you value a letter like that than one more tchotchke to dust? What if, instead of spending money on someone who already has enough, you help someone in genuine need in their honor?
You see, when we decide to spend less money, or to spend our money in ways that really matter, or on causes that are worthy of our support, we have the opportunity to do something that matters so much more and is more in line with the work that God did and is doing this season. And don’t get me wrong- I love presents! Of course, I do! I love getting and giving presents. I’m not asking you to stop completely. I’m just suggesting the possibility that if we spend less, we might be able to give real gifts, gifts that matter.
I’ve told you that this year’s Advent theme is the Advent Conspiracy. I didn’t come up with it. The idea is nearly 20 years old at this point. And I don’t love the name. “Conspiracy” has dark connotations at this point in time. But there’s something else in the word conspiracy that is beautiful and perhaps holy. The word “conspiracy” has two root words- con, which means “together”, and spir, which means “breathe.” You hear that “spir” root in other words- respiration, the act of breathing; inspire, to breathe in a new idea; expire, to breathe no more. So the root words of “conspiracy” tell us that the word is really about a group of people breathing together.
And in both the Old and New Testaments, in Hebrew and Greek, breath is associated with the Holy Spirit. God’s breath hovered over the waters at creation, God’s breath breathes new life into dry bones in Ezekiel. God’s breath, God’s holy wind blows over the believers at Pentecost, gifting the church with the Holy Spirit. Friends, this Advent is an opportunity for us to breathe together, to fill our lungs with God’s Holy Spirit- ruach, pneuma, spir. Let us breathe out the expectations, the pressure, the expense of money, time, and energy, let us breathe out the unreality of a TV Christmas. And instead, let’s breathe in the Holy Spirit. Let us breathe deeply, let us breathe together. Let us worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all in the name of the one who comes to us, God with us. Amen.