Most of the year, I feel a bit out of step with the church. I want to weep about hunger and Ferguson and Ebola and beheadings. I want to rage, and fast, and pray for God to break off the hands (and other parts) of men selling girls into sex slavery. The state of the world taunts my shaky faith and I want to fight back. Which doesn’t make for good coffee hour small talk.
Then along comes Advent, and I feel normal again. The time of year when it’s okay to admit that we are in the midst of a shit storm, for crying out in the dark, “WE NEED HELP!”
Since becoming a Christian, Advent has been my favorite time of year, and our family was all set for it this year. Light a candle every night, tell a story, sing a song, and pray. No busyness with presents and cookie exchanges. We give the kids money to donate to organizations we care about, and we try to help them understand that Christmas is about Jesus, not gifts.
And then, twelve hours before we were set to light the first candle, my Sunday School class of five- to ten-year-olds goes and turns the whole thing upside down. “Why do we get presents if Christmas is really like Jesus’ birthday party?” asked Elijah.
“Yes!” I think, but don’t say aloud. “Your parents are going to kill me, but you are speaking my language,”
We had just begun our Advent celebration and I hadn’t said anything about Christmas being Jesus’ birthday party. In fact, I was talking about the deep longing in our hearts for everything to be made right. Still, it felt like an important question, so I decided to follow up on it.
“That is a very good question,” I responded. “In lots of families, including mine, people don’t give each other gifts on Christmas. Instead, we buy Jesus gifts.”
“How do you do that?” Mia wanted to know. “Well, Jesus tells us in the Bible that what we do for the hungry and the thirsty, or for prisoners, or strangers, or those with little money, what we do for the least of these, we do for Him. If we want to give Jesus a gift, we can give a gift to someone who has a need that we can meet.”
My six-year-old friend Naomi got really excited and jumped in. “Then I think I know what our presents are.”
“You do?” I wondered.
“Yeah. They are like the goodie bags at Jesus’ birthday party!” ”
Ooh. I really like that idea, Naomi. Now I have a question for all of you. When you go to someone’s birthday party, who gets the majority of the gifts? The birthday boy or girl, or the guests?”
“The birthday boy!”
“The birthday girl!”
“Yup,” I responded. “So this Christmas, you might ask your families if you could give Jesus a really great gift. And maybe you could get a goodie bag.”
Some of the families of children in our class already do something like this, and those children shared a bit. Still, not everyone was keen on the idea.
“You know what’s different about going to Jesus’ party?” I eventually asked. “I love giving Jesus presents for Christmas. But no matter how much I get for him, he gives me so much more. We say it all the time, but it’s really true: Jesus’ love is the best gift you’ll ever get. Buying gifts for homeless people or spending time with orphans won’t make Jesus love you more, but you will get to spend more time with him, and you’ll get to experience his love in new ways. And I promise you that that is better than anything you’re gonna find wrapped up under your tree.”
I thought about that conversation all afternoon on Sunday. Talked about it with Jeff and the kids. Prayed about it while we set up our family’s advent wreath. And eventually decided that we were going to change our family’s entire gift policy. Each day of Advent we will give a gift to someone in whom we can experience Christ. And every night after we gather to light the candles and read a story, we’re going to share what gift we gave Jesus that day. Finally, we’ll pray for ourselves and those people who were Jesus to us that day.
During this season, I’m also going to learn how to knit, and I’m going to make stockings, aka goodie bags. (What kind of homeschooling mom doesn’t know how to knit, anyway?) We’ll fill them up for each other, as a small reminder of all that Jesus gives us when we show up at his party. Big presents for Jesus, goodie bags for us.
Since we hadn’t planned anything before Sunday, we sat down with the kids to make a quick list of what we might do to love on those the world all too often rejects, despises or ignores. Every family will have their own list of people an concerns that God has put on their heart. In case it helps to get you started, here’s a peek at ours.
Day 1: Luckily, we had already planned a party for the evening, where we had invited international students to celebrate the first night of Advent with us.
Day 2: Nafisa walked out of school in a mass protest to ask that police officers wear cameras. Last night, in support of that effort, we sent the NAACP money to support their walk from Ferguson to the state house.
Day 3: The boys made cookies with friends and brought them to the Salvation Army daycare center for homeless children.
Day 4: I spent the day in court with a friend who had been arrested. That night we prayed for the prisoners we know and don’t know, for the guilty and the innocent, and for the people we know who work in prisons. Then we donated to Prison Fellowship.
Day 5: We prayed for all of the people around the world who don’t have access to the Bible in their own language, and then sent money to Wycliffe to produce audio Bibles for people in India.
Day 6: The kids will all get $100 each to buy animals for families around the world through Heiffer International.
Day 7: We’ll write a letter and send a gift to our sponsored the girl we sponsor in Haiti through World Vision.
Day 8: We’ll give each of the kids $60 to buy gifts to put in the stockings of the other four people in the family. Jeff and I will get $160. While we are in financially not “the least of these,” this is an opportunity to recognize the unique ways Jesus lives in each of us, and the abundant ways he blesses. Thank you, Naomi!
Day 9: We’ll write a letter, and send a gift to an boy we support in India through Agape, an orphanage for children with AIDS and whose parents have died of AIDS.
Day 10: We’ll send support money and a thank you note to Linda, who runs a youth group for disabled teens through YoungLife.
Day 11: We’re going to shop at Market Basket and write a thank you note to Arthur T. Demoulas, who fought to buy back the store and restore the wonderful working conditions for its employees.
Day 12: Donate a birthday party to a homeless child through Birthday Wishes.
Day 13: Send money to the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
Day 14: Buy an acre of seeds through Agros, an organization that helps farmers around the world buy their land and sustainably change their lives.
Day 15; Give our tithe at church.
Day 16: Donate to FCS Urban Ministries, who focus on Christian community development in the US.
Day 17: Send money to our local Salvation Army, where they love on our Central Square neighbors in ways that are awe-inspiring.
Day 18: We’ll write a letter to a boy we met at an orphanage in Ghana and send money to help with a surgery he needs this year.
We left the last eight days blank to see what God brings to mind as we make our way through the season.
Soon and very soon…