A question was asked and answered this weekend, at least for our family. The question wasn't asked as bluntly as the title of this post, but it was really the question behind the overarching theme of the weekend.
Dominick and I participated in a mini-Advent retreat this weekend with a small group from our congregation. I wasn't quite sure what it's approach would be, and where it would lead my thinking, but I was looking forward to it and knew I would walk away with some food for thought as we enter into the Advent season. I think that like so many others, I was looking for an answer to the question, "What's it all about?" and I came away with a much deeper reflective experience than I had anticipated, having hopefully internalized a message that I have been working hard at taking in for years, but not quite making it all the way.
The season that is upon us now, and comes on full force with Black Friday sales, is one that leaves many of us feeling hollow, knowing full well it ought to be about more than ransacking malls for the best deals on more junk to give to others to make up for the time we have not spent with them and the love we have not shared with them throughout the year. Of course, this is not always the case, but sadly it fits more often than not. We get caught up in the frenzy because, in some ways, it takes less effort to purchase a gift and deal with the debt later. Taking the time to thoughtfully and creatively show someone that we value their presence in our lives becomes too much work, so we opt for the quick, easy fix...another electronic gadget, another soap on a rope, another plastic toy that will end up in the trash 3 months later.
Thanks to this retreat, Dominick and I came away with a much firmer sense of what we'd like the season to be all about for our family. I loved that the phrase "be counter-cultural" was used throughout as it IS counter to our culture to buck the system and plant your feet firmly saying "We are not going to participate in the ways everyone else does...we want MORE than that." I had never before thought of this time of year as the season of Advent, seeing it always as merely Christmas and the mess that leads up to it that leaves us drained and miserable, heaving a sigh of relief when it is all over. Now, of course, it is not always like that, but last year was a real eye opener for us.
Christmas was very different for all of us last year, as most of you can recall. It was a true Advent of sorts as we waited and hoped for something for our family that thankfully ended well. Our children all received one gift on Christmas, and not anything at all extravagant. We simply didn't have the money to afford more, nor did we have the ability to find much while in Kazakhstan. Somehow though, that single gift was treasured, and it was very clear to me that we have taken the joy away from our kids by giving them too much on Christmas. Each was ecstatic with the one thing they got, and we didn't hear any cries of displeasure over having only one gift. Being given too much means that the joy gets diluted, and attention is spread too thinly to really have the ability to appreciate what was received. We have never really had the financial ability to overload the kids, but we realized that even at a lower level we have still managed to create a sense that Christmas is about receiving and not about giving...even though our children have indicated in a million different ways throughout the year that THEY don't place a priority on "getting"...it is we who place a priority on it for them...it is our fault if we continue on this path and ruin the goodness that currently exists.
So we are making some changes this year, and hopefully they will be permanent. We are going to sit down as a family and make a Christmas list of a different sort. Instead of scouring through catalogs putting together lists of things they want, as so may other kids do (but ours never really have yet), we are going to make a list but it will be quite different. We are going to make a list of all the things we want to do for others, we are going to make Advent special by making it a season of giving, of ourselves. We already have done some of that each year, but we are going to step it up a notch.
We will still give gifts, but we will try and create a focus in different directions...on creating new traditions and enjoying old ones. We will look for ways to gift those who are truly in need, not in "want" of something. We will spend time volunteering to help others, purchasing gifts for foster kids, and enjoying music and time together as a family more than usual. We will keep the season about giving, not about receiving, and we will try and find ways to show those we love that we appreciate them without making it all about money spent.
Will we be successful? I don't know, I hope so. We have been pretty intentional about heading this direction for quite some time, so it won't be a huge change for us but will still be another step backward into counter-cultural action surrounding the holiday.
Our weekend was a good start, even if it wasn't officially the beginning of Advent, and the coming week will be as well. We spent time this weekend with others, connecting and caring for them. We spent this evening with an older friend of ours in our 3rd year of celebrating friendship by having dinner together and helping him decorate his home so he didn't have to do that all alone. It is now something we look forward to as a family, and is a great step in the right direction of keeping the meaning of Advent in honoring the teachings of Jesus. We raked a friend's yard that was packed with leaves, and had a blast doing it as we joked and visited, and hopefully showed that someone is loved.
Thanksgiving will be a very special one for us as we are blessed with the presence of John and Julie Wright, along with Bekah and Emma. I can't think of better guests to help us kick off our personal Advent season and to help us keep in mind what really matters. More selfless people I am not sure I have ever encountered, and it will be a tremendously joyous time of celebrating long distance friendship.
Maybe by the end of the season, the answer to the question will be crystal clear, as long as we don't muddy the waters. What's it all about?
Jesus! He showed us the way to a truly meaningful way of living, and it has nothing at all to do with what Christmas has now become.
Here's to being counter-cultural. Team LaJoy is in almost every other way, so why not take it all the way and include Christmas as well!!
Care to join us? Leave a comment and share just one change you intend to make this Christmas to escape the rat race and regain meaning this holiday season. Even one small change, if made every year, can add up. Make up your mind not to overbuy for your kids, refuse to go to an office party where it is all about drinking and shmoozing and instead spend that evening with someone who is lonely or in need of a little attention. Have your kids take just one item off their lists, go buy it and give it to a child for whom their might be no Christmas at all. Instead of slamming through your Christmas cards this year, take a little extra time to write a few really thoughtful comments about how you value the recipient.
Together let's create a more meaningful season!