Presents or Presence? Gifts that Matter

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What if we just stop? Stop the madness. Stop the frustrating pursuit of the perfect present. Stop shopping until we drop. Stop trying to "people please" through gift giving.

What if we spend less, but give more, love more? And here's a thought. What if we use the holidays to worship God more fully?

Those are questions posed by a grassroots group known as the Advent Conspiracy. They've partnered with more than 1,000 churches-more than 300 of them United Methodist-in 17 countries to change the way the world does Christmas and the way the world gives presents or . . . presence.

"We're not trying to kill the idea of giving gifts," said Ken Weigel, pastor of ministry development at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Ore. The nondenominational congregation is one of the founding churches of the Advent Conspiracy. "What we're saying is that instead of buying your kid the Xbox, buy him a baseball mitt, and yourself a mitt, and actually make a commitment to your son to play catch regularly."

Or, suggested Weigel, give a friend or family member a couple of mugs and a pound of coffee with a note that says, "This coffee is for when we sit down and talk because what I want to do this year is spend more time with you."

Called "relational giving," it's an important tenet of Advent Conspiracy's philosophy.

"We've got to re-examine this weird idea of saying 'I love you equals X amount of money,'" he said. "What everyone really wants is to be loved and to have time with the people they love. Nobody lies on their deathbed and says, 'I wish I had more toys.'"

In fact, Weigel believes it's a relief to most people when they finally let go of their grandiose expectations of both giving and receiving over the holidays.

"Just look at Black Friday. We spent the entire day before giving thanks, and then the next day we go crazy going after things we've convinced ourselves we need. What if we just stopped the consumerism? What if we just said we actually have the things we really need — we don't need another sweater or another set of screwdrivers. What if we just looked the empire of consumerism dead in the eye and said, 'I don't need you!'"

According to Weigel, moms often have the hardest time reining in the spending because their love language is gift giving. And dads? Well, they too often try to solve Christmas giving dilemmas with a credit card. However, parents can lead by example and model giving to kids.

"Say the family has an extra $200 they had planned to spend on a Wii, but the neighbors don't have heat, or the homeless don't have food, or a family at church doesn't have Christmas gifts. Do we want to give the neighbors heat, or the homeless a few meals, or the family who is down on their luck some stuff they need . . . or do we go buy the Wii?

"Somewhere along the way, kids have got to get the message, 'Let's stop worshipping the idol of consumerism and actually start looking at Jesus and the gift God gave us in giving him."

It's about the meaning behind the giving.

This is the first year the Rev. Kevin Raidy's congregation has collaborated with Advent Conspiracy. At Bloomfield United Methodist Church in Indiana where he serves as pastor, a large outside banner announces, "We support a conspiracy!"

"This is an awareness project for us," Raidy said. "Meaning is lost at Christmas. Jesus was born in the simplest of settings; yet, we've lost the message."

In a series of sermons and other lessons inspired by Advent Conspiracy, Raidy is driving home the message that it is not always about the gifts; it is about the meaning behind the giving.

"The Christmas 'kick' is starting earlier and earlier every year," the pastor said. "There are pre-Black Friday sales, then Black Friday, then Cyber-Monday. Everyone is wanting bits and pieces of our money and our time. We can be stressed out from overdoing. We can be maxed out on our credit cards from overspending. Or we can have God's peace that comes from giving from the heart. It's a choice we make."

Give more of yourself so there is more for others.

In his first Advent Conspiracy sermon of the season, the Rev. Brian Germano encouraged his congregation to spend less on gifts of excess-the filler and fluff gifts they didn't really need-so that they could contribute to causes that make a tangible difference in the world.

On a recent Sunday at East Cobb United Methodist Church in Marietta, Ga., Germano asked his parishioners to "give more of yourselves."

"God didn't give us things," Germano preached. "He gave us himself so we should give gifts that do the same-give of ourselves and give gifts that celebrate a relationship."

"Buy one less gift," he suggested. "And the money you save on that one less gift can then be used for gifts that matter like helping a needy family, or filling a care package for someone, or helping with a mission project."

According to Germano, the apostle Paul talks about the use of money and possessions where our abundance can be shared with others in need so there is a balance.

"So spending less," said the pastor, "helps us fulfill Paul's advice to use our wealth in ways that truly make a difference in the world."

*Passi-Klaus is a staff writer on the Public Information Team at United Methodist Communications.

Contact: Press Center, (615) 742-5406 or [email protected].

First published December 9, 2010.

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