Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent Conspiracy

Listen to me: I know how to keep Christmas sacred! I have three nativity sets displayed in my house, a gold-plated "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" pin, and Christmas praise music by Maranatha playing in my minivan. Oh, yeah, I even show up to church service each Sunday in December AND on Christmas Eve. What more could Jesus want from me?

Well, he wants my heart. I may think I have that one covered since I gave my life to Him and became his follower long ago, but does the way I "do Christmas" reflect spiritual transformation, or are my celebrations awash in materialism and consumerism with a little "Jesus stuff" thrown in here and there for good measure?

I am teaching my daughters that Jesus is worthy of all their love and devotion and of supreme importance in their lives. But when Mika and Macy see me running like a little hamster in an elf hat on a red and green wheel, spinning furiously, trying to keep up with everyone else and then dragging myself off about midnight on Christmas Eve, frazzled, frantic, frustrated, and fried, what am I really teaching them?

After much thought and some soul searching, I found Advent Conspiracy (http://www.adventconspiracy.com/) and, in the words of Oprah, had an "ah-ha moment." They are about getting back to basics at Christmas, and their goals are simple:

Worship Fully
Spend Less
Give More
Love All

Obviously, implementation of these goals is going to look quite different in each person's/family's life. Let me give you just a few ideas that my family has:

We will be putting fewer gifts under the tree for the girls this year. They will each receive three gifts from us, plus a few things in their stockings. (This is in addition to gifts they will receive from other family members). We will focus on giving Mika and Macy our "presence" instead. "Relational giving" means we will spend time playing in the park, going to the movies, reading their favorite Christmas books, helping them bake and decorate sugar cookies, building forts in the front room, and watching them act out the story of the first Christmas. Money we save will be given to those who are less fortunate than we are.

After estimating that we spend approximately $150 on high-gloss photo cards, our Christmas letter, and postage, we decided to forgo paper greetings in favor of an e-card. Now, I am aware that everyone we know waits breathlessly at their mailbox to receive our Christmas card filled with a cherry-picked collage of pictures of our adorable kids and seemingly perfect family (not), and our witty, rhyming letter recapping the Jarrell's year. Yes, for our family and friends, receipt of our Christmas card/letter is the highlight of the season, and many will be crestfallen that we won't be sending them out. (yeah, right).

In any case, when we realized we could donate the $150 to Water is Basic (http://www.waterisbasic.org/) and help to provide clean drinking water for people in Sudan, we decided this was a better return on investment in the long run.

Jesus was a servant: he came to serve. So, what better way to honor him than to serve others with a heart full of gratitude for the his extravagant gift to us, over 2000 years ago? We are planning several volunteer projects that we can do as a family.

Amazingly, and I really can't explain it, but when our family takes the time to love and care for others who are less fortunate, it seems like this time is multiplied back to us! Also, the love we share greatly increases the joy and peace we feel in our hearts. It is a win-win proposition!

We don't have this all figured out; we are just trying to find some ways to tweak our Christmas celebrations and traditions to reflect the heart of our Savior. There are moments I think we go too far, moments I think we don't go far enough, and moments I feel that we're in the right spot for us.

Next year, we will probably re-evaluate again. We may decide to send out Christmas cards in 2011. We may decide three gifts for the children is too many. We may change the types of volunteering we are involved in, or what causes we donate money to.
Whatever we do, I hope that, in the words of Advent Conspiracy, we can remember that "Christmas can (still) change the world!"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hard Candy Christmas

Pretend you are in a Christmas time machine! We are headed to the year 1945! Destination: a one room house in the Smokey Mountains, where a little Dolly Parton and her 11 siblings are overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of having a store-bought gift under the tree. Let's listen in:

"Somehow Mama and Daddy always managed for each of us to get one store-bought gift. Regardless of what it was, it was a thing of wonder to be revered, looked at with slow eyes, felt with tender hands, and relished for its newness. Best of all was that "it's really mine" feeling that could carry you around on a cloud for days, or until it was replaced by that "it's really broken" feeling.

The boys' gifts usually included fireworks, and they'd be outside announcing that fact to the world as soon as a match was found. For today, tin cans would become space capsules, finger-formed dams would be blown, and many a German matchbox would no longer threaten Allied troops...

We girls usually got a little pink plastic doll with its own white cloth diaper held in place by a tiny gold safety pin. That may sound really cheap, and I'm sure it was. But for us, just the fact that it was plastic made it different from the ordinary things we saw in the holler. There was no way this could have been homemade. Unless you're home happened to be a sweatshop in Taiwan.

Those little plastic dolls instantly became the focus of whatever motherly instances the Parton girls had. Of course we all had one, and they basically all looked alike. If you looked closely enough, and of course we did, you could see little imperfections in the plastic that identified each doll. We "mothers" would get to know our dolls intimately. Inevitably, some body's would get lost or eaten by a cow or thrown down a well by an ill-tempered brother; sometimes there would be a "baby snatching."

A fight would usually follow, consisting more of accusations and name calling than anything else. "That's my doll," the rightful mother would cry. "See, it's got two little extra globs of plastic on it's left ear." On a good day, though, each mother would care for her own plastic treasure, and all would be well with the world.

We would scavenge to find things to serve as a crib and bedclothes. The more industrious ones would even fashion clothes for the doll. I always liked mine just the way it arrived on Christmas morning, in its special cloth diaper with the shiny gold pin."

Wow! Dolly's family may have been poor, but the children were rich in appreciation for even the smallest gifts, and they used so much creativity in their play.

Certainly, I am grateful that I can buy my girls more than one dollar store toy for Christmas, but I feel like by giving them so much, they have come to expect it as "their right," and often don't truly appreciate all the gifts we put in front of them. I would love for our house to have fewer toys. I'd like to find a balance between Mika and Macy having nothing and a having everything, like owning a few toys they really treasure and appreciate, instead of a house full of cheap, imported, lead-laced pieces of junk that probably cost pennies on the dollar to manufacture. Easier said than done, right? I may never figure out how to tame the "toy beast" in our lives, but I can smile when I think about little Dolly Parton, clutching her tiny store-bought doll with so much wonder and delight.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Priceless gifts--100% satisfaction guaranteed!

"It is more blessed to give than to receive." Acts 20:35
(also quoted frequently by my Mom when I was growing up)
If you and your family are looking for some ways to bless others this holiday season, here are some ideas. My family has done most, but not all of these. Certainly this is not an all-inclusive list; maybe it will be a springboard for you to brainstorm about other ways you can love and serve others during this holiday season.

Or, you may already have your own giving traditions--perhaps things passed down from your relatives, outreaches that your church sponsors, or other causes that are close to your heart. In that case, I would love to hear what you have done and how it has impacted you--I'm always looking for new ideas!

1) greet the troops at DFW airport--wish them a Merry Christmas and let them know you appreciate the gift of their service! Flights arrive daily: call 972-574-0392 for information about the following day's arrival times.

2)Bake Christmas cookies and deliver them to a neighbor or someone who needs to have their day brightened. (slice and bake is OK!)

3) Help your child select a new toy during the Christmas season and donate it to Toys for Tots. See http://www.toysfortots.com/ for drop-off locations.

4) During these down times, many families are struggling just to put food on the table. Buy some extra food staples and put them in a collection box at your grocery store, office, or church.

5) Have people on your list who are hard to buy for or who already seem to have everything? You can honor them by giving a gift in their name through World Vision. There are many so many things to choose from--sheep, pigs, cows, fishing kits, warm clothing, school supplies, and immunizations for people in the developing world, to name a few. You can view their Christmas catalog online at http://www.worldvision.org/; you can also request a hard copy.

6) Pick up a poinsettia at the store (optional) and visit a nursing home or retirement center. Ask the director to recommend a patient who rarely gets visitors and would enjoy a few minutes of company. This is a great spur-of-the-moment activity--it does not involve preplanning or require you to show up at any particular time.

7) It is too late to participate in this for Christmas 2010, but you might keep it in mind for next year. Fill a shoe-box with Christmas gifts to send to a child in an impoverished part of the world through http://www.samaritianspurse.org/. Shopping for and packing these gifts is one of my girls' favorite Christmas activities.

8) Take some inexpensive Christmas cards and write a personal note thanking a family for their wonderful Christmas light display. Keep them in the car with you (along with a roll of tape), and when you or your children are awed by some holiday decorations, leave a note on their door thanking them for their efforts.

9) Get a roll of quarters from the bank and keep it in your car. Anytime you or your children are about to enter a store with a Salvation Army kettle, you will have change handy to donate.

10) This year,you can adopt a child in need from the Salvation Army Angel Tree online! Simply select a recipient, buy the gifts, and then drop them off at the location you designate. It's that easy! http://www.dfwangeltree.org/

11) Donate used toys to Christian Community Action or a women's shelter--this is a great project to do before Christmas when lots of new toys will be received.

12) Write a note to someone who has lost a loved one this year--acknowledge that you know that it will be a difficult holiday season without their (brother, son, wife, mom, etc.) and let them know you are praying for them.

If you want a way to help your children really grasp the concept of giving their time/money/gifts/resources, here is an idea that a stole, er, I mean, I borrowed :) Take a shoe box and wrap the box and lid separately in wrapping paper. cut a slit in the top of the box. Make a little sign that says "gifts for Jesus" or write it directly on the box.

During the Christmas season, any time a member of your family does something nice for someone else, write it on a slip of paper and place it in the box. Then, some time on Christmas day, open the box and read all the slips of paper, reminding them that these are our gifts to Jesus for his birthday.

I'll close this post by quoting Buddha, which is something I am not typically in the habit of doing. However, he really sums up what I think all of us feel when we invest our time, money and resources in the lives of others:

"Before giving, the mind of the giver is happy, while giving, the mind of the giver is peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted."