Sunday, November 21, 2010

What's it all About?

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" is we who place a priority on it for 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!


Karon and John said...

We decided this year as a family that all the things we give to people will in some way support adoption. We have purchsed gifts from "Just Love Coffee Roasters" and "Love letters to Ethiopia." Mainly we decided that we wanted our money to go to something we belive in, and our gifts to have an extra layer of meaning. For the boys, they are getting one big gift. We did this last year where Emerson got a train set. This year their stocking will be filled with clues for them to find their big present (a trampoline.) We are already starting on them paiting cards to the special people in their lives and they decided we should make them all muffins. So this is where we are headed for the season.

Karon and John said...

Sorry I forgot to mention that the companies above support adoption or orphans in Ethiopia

Cindy LaJoy said...

Fantastic ideas, Karon! We also talked in our retreat about being intentional about where our dollars are spent. For us, living in a small town, trying to keep our dollars here rather than at the only mall around us which is over an hour away might make a difference between locals having jobs or not. What you are doing is making your spending double in value, as it helps your passion for orphans as well as providing a nice gift for someone you care about.

I am going to try and hit Hobby Lobby and see what kind of ideas I can come up with for the kids to make something to give to friends. The time and effort put into creating a gift will be time spent caring for that recipient, and THAT is what it is supposed to be about. I like the muffin idea!

Silent said...

My daughter is only 2 1/2 and though it might be a bit confusing for her, we've have an 'angel' through Salvation Army to purchase gifts for. I picked a 3 year old girl (and later her 3 year old brother too) so that my girl can help pick out what we buy. If we do this every year, it'll come to mean something.

I like the muffins idea too--but I always feel bombarded by food this time of year. What about sand art brownies/cookies? Do you know those--you layer dry ingredients in a glass jar and include directions for the wet ingredients that need to be added later when ready to be baked. I've seen them, not made them myself, but I'm sure you could find a book at the library or recipes online.

Lindsay said...

I did this 3 years ago - instead of giving gifts to my family I sponsored surgery for orphans in China in their name. They receive the email updates on how their child is doing. Noone ever felt they missed out on, as you say, another soap on a rope!

I'm doing something similar come March for Hannah's 4th birthday. She is having a party and I am telling our guests not to bring her a gift. She has more toys that necessary anyway and we simply do not need more. Instead we are giving people a gift envelope and then, if they wish, they can give a small donation anonymously. We will then give the donations to a local charity here which support Romani children from impoverished backgrounds who have musical, athletic, acadmic or artistic talent. They receive all tuition, materials and an individual tutor to help with school work. Slovakia has what can accurately be described as an apartheid education system, so the last thing is absolutely vital in breaking the poverty cycle her. Hannah was not particularly on board with the idea when I first talked about it with her last month (she had just been to two parties and seen how much loot was to be gained), but now has a very good understanding of the concept of charitable giving and the fact that many children here live in great poverty and can't enjoy the things she has. It has also helped her begin to understand how much she does have. She now says she 'loves Dive Maky' (the charity we are supporting) and I hope the ideas of giving (instead of receiving) and stopping to appreciate what we do have, are ones that will grow and stay with her for life.

Cindy LaJoy said...

Lindsey, I hadn't realized just how bad it was for Roma children...what a particularly meaningful way to give for your family!

Silent...I know what you mean about the food frenzy this time of year. I like your idea of something that is food oriented but can be used at a later date, and kids would LOVE to create these!

While in the shower this morning (See? It IS my thinking place!) I came up with our idea after seeing something last night at our friend's home and the kids will enjoy creating it too. I'll share later as a couple are blog readers and I can't give it away!!

Anonymous said...

We as extended family support Heifer Project. We give each other gifts of bees or chickens, shares of sheep or water buffalo. It's an easy way to have an ark of animals and not have to clean up the manure. Somewhere in the world is a family who can start their own enterprise and will pass it on to others.

This year I am asking my six-year-old grandson to partner with me in giving. I will give him three choices--probably two human possibility producing and one environmental. I'm noting the suggestions of each respondent. May help me choose the final three to present to the grandson.


Anonymous said...

Since before I had my kiddo, I volunteered with a local organization called "Straight from the Streets" - a one-woman show with no overhead, they take the homeless on a case by case basis and try to solve their problems, as opposed to moving them from one agency to another for band-aids. This year, in the fall, my five year old son and I prepared a second backpack for a homeless child and last holiday season we took a trip to the store for a child his age, who would have been without holiday gifts. We picked out one practical and one toy that my son thought that other little boy would like. This year, much to my surprise, my son put together a very short list, which included balloons - six different colors of balloons, but balloons. Only one "must have" toy on the entire thing (damn you, pillow pets!) This year will be a quiet one for our family - but buying those gifts for another child, donating to the food bank, and making sure to give to others who are not as fortunate are all key parts of the holiday. Vegas

Anonymous said...

We've always tried not to give each child too much nor to buy much during the year, for that matter. But multiply by eight and now a son-in-law, and the presents still pile pretty high under three. Our older daughters also like to give to the younger four, and I appreciate their hearts to give and to spend their own hard earned money to please a younger sibling. It might just be a game or shirt from a thrift store and such.

This year, we're cutting down even more. The older girls do each need a bigger ticket item, and we'd just as soon get them something they need and will use (winter coat for campus, good shoes for teaching, GPS for daughter who travels often, etc). They're all very conservative in their spending, so I don't mind (since we can)helping them in this way.

A few of them are going to together to purchase state university basketball tickets for the younger four during Christmas break. We're all real fans, and many of us alumni. That will please the younger kids, and will mean fewer gifts piled high. Spending the time together doing something we all enjoy makes it a special gift. It's dutch treat for everyone else's ticket, so Dad and I are happy, too!

I make a point to have the younger kids make cookies or snacks or plan something to give that a college/career sister would enjoy.

We've also done shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child for many years. Sometimes we've given to local families for Christmas through an "adopt a family" program. That reminds our children of those who have so much less than we do.

This year we will reinstitute our "Time Gifts" idea from when our older girls were little. They make gift certificates for each other which is a gift of time spent. Examples might be "I will play a board game with you", or "I will make cookies with you", etc. It's a good way to help them focus on what would make the other person happy, and it "forces" them to sacrifice some of their own time to please someone else. You can be as creative as you want in how these gifts are presented to the recipient.

We can all use the challenge to cut back on the gift giving and spend more time being thoughtful and serving others, and thinking about the real reason Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. Thanks, Cindy.

Nancy in the Midwest

Anonymous said...

That should have read, "..the presents still pile pretty high under the tree."

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of suggestions. In times past, we have purchased about ten different kinds of dried beans,colorful if possible. Mix in large bowl. Repackage into about one lb. size ziplocks.Add a bow or tiny ornament plus the typed recipe for ten bean soup.Inexpensive and welcome on a cold winter day.

Anonymous said...

The other suggestion I intended to make was to purchase , at a craft type store, unpainted bird houses or other unpainted items. Have the kids sand and decorate them however they wish. Dee had her child do this one year and they were very well received.We still enjoy seeing some of them in our neighborhood trees.