Doing Christmas Differently: Our Stories

advent conspiracyTo finish our Advent series devoted to the Advent Conspiracy, four Calvary members shared reflections with the congregation about their experiences this Advent.  Each one was assigned one of the four emphases of the season: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All.  Here are their reflections:

Doing Christmas Differently: Our Stories

WORSHIP FULLY, by Susan Sevier

That first week of Advent, when we began to talk about this movement called Advent Conspiracy seems to me like it was a million years ago.  It certainly was 4 papers, 3 final exams, 2 concerts, and a bout of the flu ago for me personally.

So when Amy asked me to talk for a few minutes about my experience of “worshipping fully” in Advent,  well, I panicked.   I was pretty sure that there wasn’t anything I had done that fit into a discussion about living a life of worshiping fully during the last month– I slept less,  I read too much, I wrote way too many words and I used more tissues than the legal limit allows – yes, but worshiping fully? I really thought that I had failed at the “worshiping fully” assignment this year.

Why did I think this?  You may not know this about me, but ever since I first learned what was meant by the term “liturgical calendar”, I have been a devotional junkie.  That’s right.  For the last five years, as the change for each each liturgical season approached, I would spend hours and hours designing my devotional practice for the coming weeks.  I have stacks and stacks and stacks of books that lead you through a daily devotional practice, I know countless web sites that will provide me with a daily devotional in my email basket,  I know how to get up early in the morning and spend my time in preparation and prayer.

But not this year.  My early morning hours always set aside for devotional reading now belong to my Hebrew grammar book.  The devotional guide I chose still sat next to my chair, waiting for me to open it.  And now you understand my sense of panic – how could someone who gave her worship time over to grammar study and paper writing have anything to say about worshiping fully?  That’s right. Total panic.

So with the semester over and the music put to rest for another season, I decided that it was time to do a little “catch up” reading, and I picked up the book I had carefully selected to guide me and took a look.  This year I chose God Is In the Manger, a collection drawn from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was  a theologian and pastor in Germany who actively resisted the Nazi government, ended up imprisoned and was eventually executed for his actions and his beliefs. We are fortunate enough to have much of his writing, both before his arrest and during his imprisonment.  I like reading Bonhoeffer;  he is close enough to us in historical time that we can understand the strength that it took for him to stand for and to die for his faith.  And once again, his writing made things clear for me:  that there are many ways to worship fully and I had in fact been worshiping more fully than ever before by doing the tasks before me – because I was being most fully human, perhaps more fully human than ever before in my life.  And in that humanity was my best chance to know and love the God we wait for during Advent.  Here’s what Bonhoeffer wrote about what happens when the promise of Advent is fulfilled and Jesus is born to us once again:

God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to become human—really human… Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.

And now I understand.  It isn’t how busy we are, it isn’t whether or not we make time to read and ponder the mysteries before us.  It is how we live, it is how we do the task in front of us, it is the accumulation of our intentions and our ability to be present.    Do we run to our death or do we open to our lives?  The answer to that question tells us just how fully we worship each day.  Do we embrace our humanity?  If we do not, we do not understand the meaning of Advent and Christmas.

Our Psalm today, Psalm 148, is the centerpiece of what is sometimes called the Hallelujah collection, a five psalm set the ends the book of Psalms as we know it.  This particular Psalm is all about worshiping fully – about being where we are in the moment we are there, praising creation around us and listening as that creation itself praises the God who made it, worshiping fully by living the life that is in us and living with the life that is around us.  Just as for the Psalmist who wrote so long ago, worshiping fully, living fully, makes us truly One with the God we were waiting for…and we have a chance to realize the true meaning of Emmanuel – God chooses to be with us, and we choose to be with God.

SPEND LESS, by Daniel Alcazar-Roman:

After learning about advent conspiracy, we hoped to create a mindset for our family that focuses on the real meaning of Christmas. Our goal was to deemphasize giving material gifts, and to stress the celebration of God’s greatest gifts to us, Jesus.

When reflecting on the place Jesus was born, it is obvious that Mary and Joseph did not spend any money on decorations for the stable or buying things to get ready for the birth of the savior. Instead, Jesus was probably born in a dark, smelly place with no running water. Definitely, Jesus arrived to a place that did not have any of the bells and whistles of our modern delivery rooms (He did get an angelic choir and a shining star. These probably did not cost so much to arrange for God).

How could we start spending less and engaging in experiences of relational giving?

We decided to take concrete action. Our first Advent conspiracy decision was to scrap the plans to buy outdoor Christmas lights for our new house.

The following week our oldest daughter, Rachel, asked why we did not have Christmas lights outside our house. She said that if we did not have lights, the neighborhood carolers would not know to stop at our house. Rachel explained that they would not know whether we are a Christian or Jewish household.  We thought that was a good enough reason and we proceeded to buy and install blinking lights of many colors.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give.  I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.  In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.  If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.  There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 86). 

Similarly, I think that we should change our spending habits during advent. We should spend less in the things that not align with our values. We should do so until we feel the uncomfortable effects of going against the flow of consumerism that is taking over Christmas.

Notwithstanding our initial failed attempt, Advent Conspiracy changed the way we celebrated Christmas at our house. These are the things we will most fondly remember from this season:

  • We bought most of our presents from an event that raised money for education programs for poor children in Peru (http://operacionsanandres.org/).
  • My wife and I made a puppet theater for our two girls.
  • We all worked on making hand-made presents (including a stuffed toy for my brother’s girlfriend’s dog).
  • We took a poinsettia to a homebound Calvary member.
  • We got to know new friends over dinner at Rachel Johnson’s house.
  • We spend time talking, laughing, and eating with family members.

We are looking forward to the ways Advent Conspiracy will transform our Christmas in the years to come!

GIVE MORE, by Jodi Smith:

Pastor Amy has asked me to speak about the Advent Conspiracy topic of “Give More”. My Advent has been more “active” than “reflective” this year, which I hope to change for next year. At first when I thought about my topic, I thought maybe I had missed the boat this year. Admittedly, I missed several of the Advent Conspiracy sermons because I was working with the [Sunday school] kids–time which I wouldn’t trade. But then I thought that, no, I hadn’t missed the mark. My Advent this year was definitely one where I “gave more”. I gave to myself, gave of my resources, and gave of my time.  

In terms of giving to self, we had a staff training day ay work [in mid-December] where the focus was on meditation and nutrition. I learned about the importance of self-care so that I can continue to give to others. I can easily adapt the meditation practice to include words from Scripture, hymns, etc. Self-care is really important, and I enjoyed learning about it.   

I gave of my resources this Advent, which was, by far, the best part of my Advent. I am a huge fan of alternative gift fairs, and I was delighted when Calvary sponsored one this year! I love the idea of giving gifts that are truly needed–not just something that will sit on a shelf. Roberto and I purchased toys for SOME (So Others Might Eat), which is a busy [local] social service organization serving families and individuals in need. We had great fun picking out the toys (Star Wars, My Little Pony, Legos, etc.) that were placed in shoe boxes for kids. Roberto was my close consultant for choosing things that kids would like. It brings me great joy knowing that I made a difference in the life of a child. 

I also gave of my time this Advent. I visit older adults as part of my work, matching them with volunteers. I love visiting them and letting them know that someone cares about them. I also give of my time by teaching Sunday school, and it’s great being able to impact, at least in some small way, the lives of the children. 

I think of a portion of the passage from Matthew 25:31-46 [where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats] when Jesus states that “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me.  I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me…Whatever you did for the least of these, you did unto me.”  So, I think the greatest gift we can give to God is giving to others.

LOVE ALL, by Allyson Robinson:

I put off preparing this reflection until the last minute. On purpose.

I knew last Sunday what I would say – or rather, what I should say. I knew it from the moment we heard Amy say, “The Advent Sunday of love calls us first to consider our relationships. Not systems of injustice, not the suffering of the world around us, but first, first, our relationships.”

I knew what she said was true, and I knew what I needed to do about it. And I knew that, once I’d done it, I’d stand here this morning in this moment and I’d tell you about it, and together we’d celebrate one small victory for love in a world where every victory counts, no matter how small.

Except I haven’t done it yet, and now Christmas week has passed and I’ve missed my moment. So I don’t have much to tell you this morning. I’m sorry for that.

I had every opportunity to do what I knew I should, sitting right there with you last Sunday morning. Christmas week is, in fact, made of opportunities to do this thing I knew I needed to do. Because Christmas week is the week that we pack up the kids and drive to grandma and grandpa’s house. The week we invite parents-in-law and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews to come share a meal and a day with us. The week we pick up the phone and call family far and near just to say, “Hello, you’re valued, you’re missed, you’re loved.”

But I’ve been letting those opportunities come and go for years. I’m practiced at it now, rehearsed. And so late on Christmas afternoon, when I could put it off no longer – when Danyelle would not allow me to put it off any longer, when my sister had texted me twice, first asking me, then urging me to do it, when the nagging of my own conscience could no longer be stifled with pie or leftovers or stalled with another round of Uno – I picked up the phone, and I dialed my father’s number. And then, as it began to ring, handed the phone to Truman. “Here, want to talk to Grandpa?” (As I told you, I’ve become very, very good at avoidance here.)

Eventually, of course, after all four kids had “talked to Grandpa,” the phone was passed back to me, but by that point I’d already made up my mind that I would not do what I knew I should. And so my father and I talked for a minute or two about the kids and the weather and the news – the emptiness that passes for conversation between us now – and I didn’t say what I should have said. I didn’t say, “Dad, there’s something I need to talk to you about. There’s a reason our relationship isn’t what it once was. There’s a reason that after years of talking to each other every few days, I never call anymore, a reason I never write and we never visit. There are things you did to me and things you said to me, years ago now, that hurt me deeply. When I really needed you, you abandoned me. Despite the values of loyalty and courage and selflessness you taught me as a child, you betrayed me in a moment of fear and selfishness and it hurt more than I can say. And I’ve been angry about that for a long time, Dad, so angry. But this year, this Christmas, today, I forgive you. And I’m sorry it’s taken this long, and I want to start over. And I love you, Dad.”

But this morning, as I wrote these words, and as all the pain and anger that I’ve worked so hard to avoid swept over me again, I think I understood for the first time why I didn’t say those things, why I’ve left so much unsaid between my father and I for so long. It’s because, despite my own values, I have not forgiven him, and have not wanted to. I’ve preferred my righteous anger to Christlike humility, preferred to relive the indignities I suffered over and over again, instead of doing my part to put the past behind us and make a new future. I have chosen hate – that especially hurtful brand of hate that is aloof indifference toward someone who deserves better – over love. That’s why another opportunity, another moment, another Christmas, slipped away from me.

But at least I can no longer pretend that I don’t know the truth – that the Christian command to love all can mean nothing to me until it means, “Love one,” “Love that one.” And so I stand here this morning, this first Sunday after Christmas Day, as if it were the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope. I hope that the truth about love I finally saw this Christmas will some day, some day soon, set me free. O come, o come Emmanuel…

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