This Christmas, Give Presence

Black Friday 2010 has come and gone, followed by Cyber Monday, and sales figures are encouraging the talking heads who say that, so far, Americans are spending more this season. Whether they're buying Christmas gifts, strictly, or shopping for themselves seems unclear at this point. I was, at first, startled by the New York Times'  lead, "Americans are shopping selfishly again," although I realized after reading the article that many shoppers seemed to be shopping at least as much for themselves as they were for Christmas.

(And full disclosure -- this week I took a speaking honorarium and ordered "Greg Garrett" a refurbished MacBook Pro to replace the battered laptop with its sticking keys upon which I type this and everything else I write. So, like those folks in the Times, I bought something substantial for my business this week.)

It's the end of a hard year, the holidays are coming, we want to feel better and make others feel better, and the question this Christmas, is still, as always, about choosing between God and Mammon: Are we looking toward Bethlehem for hope?

Or are we looking toward Walmart?

We all know stories about people -- ourselves, friends, family, others -- who mortgage their coming year to buy presents for Christmas. We all know stories about people who want each year's gift unwrapping to exceed last year -- or at least not to fall short of it in spectacle and drama. We all know people who spend the last month or two of the year trying so hard to find the perfect gift that it ruins the last month or two of the year for them (and, honestly, for the people around them).

As a financial single parent trying to make ends meet, I'm not really in a position to spend thousands for Christmas, and my credit card is already maxed out from this year's traveling to speak and write. But I have been guilty of spending more than I could afford for the so-called perfect present, and have felt simultaneously happy to give more than I had, and angry for buying into an ethic I try not to promote to my children.

That's why I love Advent Conspiracy, an international movement co-founded by my friend Chris Seay, that advocates spending less on ourselves and our families, more on others, and giving of ourselves and our time to those in need. Advent Conspiracy's call is to "Worship Fully; Spend Less; Give More; Love All," and it is a call we need to hear this year.

I always welcome the coming of Advent, because it comes at one of my busiest times -- the end of the year, the end of the semester, the holiday season -- and its call to reflection and holiness stands in sharp contrast to my own scatteredness, my own exhaustion, and my own temptation to just do as the culture does.

But this year, as in years past, I am hoping to experience a holiday more about love and presence than about presents, a holiday about giving gifts to those who need them more than my family and me.

This Advent, I'd like to feel more oriented toward God and others than toward the mall.

This Christmas, I'd like to celebrate all God has given us, not some technological wonder that will be garbage in a couple of years' time, or some unwanted piece of crap that my kids or I will stick into a closet.

There are millions around the globe who wonder where their next meal -- or tomorrow's meal -- will come from, who lack reliable clean water, who don't have access to the medication that might save their lives or the lives of their children. I've traveled in Mexico, Africa, the Caribbean. I have seen them, I have looked into their faces, and I have wrestled with the thought that what I spend on the things I just end up throwing out would keep one or more of them alive.

So the thought that this Christmas you or I might spend five, ten, fifty, or five hundred dollars on something that nobody really needs pierces my heart in light of that reality.

Personal decisions have a political dimension, and what I'm suggesting has some societal costs. When I tell you that I'm not intending to spend thousands of dollars at Christmas, I'm saying as well that I'm not expecting to be pumping a lot of new dollars into our economy, which is, for better or worse, largely driven by consumer spending. (I am also saying that I don't intend to fill the coffers of international conglomerates to make money for their shareholders and top executives, or to increase the trade deficit with China by buying their cheap goods; but those effects seem less obvious and onerous to us.)

But I am also telling you that what little I can spend, I intend to spend wisely, and that too has a political dimension. My family and I want to help someone who needs help, and we want to orient our society toward that altruism and compassion as well. I'm going to gift something useful to a family in the Two-Thirds World (some call it the Third World, but since two-thirds of the world live under the same difficult conditions, I like this name better). I'm looking at Heifer International, where we could give a farm animal that might keep someone's family alive. I'm looking at a similar gift catalog from Save the Children, which I already support. I'm encouraging people to check out the great work done in Africa by Comfort the Children, a nonprofit run by my friend the Rev. Zane Wilemon, and consider buying a gift from them that would support impoverished Africans (or any thoughtful gift from a company or nonprofit that supports the less fortunate).