Monday, December 15, 2008

This year we’re scaling back on Christmas. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. My family is spending less on presents than has been our habit in recent years. But we may still spend as much this season as we have in the past.

The rebelcontrarian in me has had a vague notion to scale back for a few years now. But it took Advent Conspiracy to finally spark a conversation with my family. I wish it hadn’t taken some big media push by a special interest group. It goes against my nature. But I guess if it nudges someone like me in my position, then it’s accomplishing its purpose. And though I’d like to, I can’t take credit for it. Instead of proudly bearing my self-styled label—of being a hip minimalist and full of compassion—I have to lose that identity by buying into something bigger than me. Humility is easy except when it’s actually humbling.

So, at Thanksgiving we talked about how we could make this Christmas different. We threw around some ideas about what we could do as a family. We talked about working at a food pantry or finding some people in need. Did we know anyone? A recent speaker I’d heard said that our problem isn’t that we don’t love the poor but that we don’t know anyone who is poor. We were at a loss for names ourselves.

So far, our ideas had been okay, but they hadn’t really struck a chord with us. I knew that for this Christmas experiment to change our habits in a lasting way, it had to fit our family’s own personality. Sometimes it is good and necessary to introduce something foreign to our personality if it doesn’t allow for authentic good, but I still wondered if we couldn't find something intrinsic that would fit better.

“Well, when I was little we always went Christmas caroling to old people’s houses,” my sister recalled with a laugh. “Maybe we could go to an old people’s home and sing for them.” This idea met with more interest than what we’d already mentioned. Our family is a musical one, we all agreed. This was a good option.

“If we’re going with something natural for our family,” my dad said looking at me, “I immediately thought of Beth and Jake.” Beth is a single mother of Jake, who’s 9 now. We’ve known them both that whole time. “Of course, their basement was flooded this summer,” my dad went on, “so they have needs in that regard. And they’re someone who’s been a part of our lives for a lot of years already. It makes sense that we’d do something special for them.”

These ideas weren’t uncomfortable or beyond our means the way we often imagine things like this to be. But making a sacrifice doesn’t always need to be inconvenient, does it? Nor would these acts of compassion radically transform many lives, but they wouldn’t leave the people unchanged either. Small change is valid too. When the desire for big transformations prevents us from acting at all in small ways, we know that our desires have gotten out of order. Working for small change instead of big change is something that will require a humble spirit because there won’t be a visible reward. Humility is easy, except when it’s actually humbling.

But I think humility is part of what Christmas means, too. Consider this interpretation of Christmas:

“Though Jesus was God,
he did not think of equality
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
He took the humble position of a slave
And was born as a human being.”

We typically think this is out of character for God, but consider God's self-styled residence: "I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble." It makes sense then that God would choose a cave-barn. It seems fitting even. Maybe Jesus felt quite at home there. What kind of homes are we making for him?

We all know the story of Christmas. It's been so glamorized. But it wasn’t headline news when it happened. The work of God rarely is, by our standards. Headline news would have covered the astronomic anamoly in the night sky, not the birth it pointed to. "Huh," we would've shrugged before flipping channels. But the angels got their priorities straight and made it a big deal, just like they do when a sinner repents—another non-newsworthy event. God works like that: turning insignificance on its head, having parties for it. Humility is insignificant, except when God gets hold of it. So is small change.

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