Advent Conspiracy Week One
I was at my local neighborhood Walmart yesterday.
I hate my local Walmart. It's dirty, unkempt, it smells funny and--depending on when you go in there--full of the walking dead. If you don't believe me, check out this website dedicated to the people who shop at Walmart. If you find yourself on the website... I am sorry on a bunch of levels.
Anyway... I was at the Walmart to retrieve a cake that my wife had ordered. I keep telling her not to shop at Walmart, but she continues to be seduced by the low prices, and since she can send me into the bowels of the beast without having to do it herself, she doesn't listen to me. So, I was strolling into the Walmart with a score or so of other people who all looked like extras in the movie "Zombieland," and I saw the sign to the right hanging from the ceiling. "Save money. Live better. I have to say that I am encouraged to see that Walmart is so concerned for my welfare that it decided to run a campaign where I will be compelled to save money so that I will live better.
First, I have to say that I actually agree with the idea that saving money will result in better living.
Second, and most importantly, the fact of the matter is that Walmart doesn't want me to save money. It wants me to spend it...in the Walmart. But if it can convince me that SPENDING money in the Walmart will actually SAVE me money and that I will live better as a result... man, that's something.
Marketers are really hitting below the belt this year.
This week I am beginning a new sermon series for Advent, using the Advent Conspiracy curriculum, videos, graphics, ideas, etc. The whole purpose of the Advent Conspiracy is to re-frame this time of year from a Christian perspective and to get people to stop buying in to the consumerism that dominates the season. When we do, we find that we are able to live more relationally and use our money to do something worthwhile--to help build the kingdom of God.
Love All. Spend less. Give More. Worship Fully.
You gotta love that, right? It sounds pretty awesome. But in the end, Americans will still spend nearly $400 billion on Christmas this year. And most of that will be on credit.
One Christmas, a few years ago, my oldest boy got over 50 Christmas presents. FIFTY. That year I went to like a hundred stores to find some stupid Hot Wheels thing that he wanted and no store had in stock... I was almost ready to resort to bribery of sales people in order to secure the damn thing when I happened to find it somewhere and snatched it up before some desperate women behind me got to it. She was distraught when she saw I had grabbed the last one, and complained about it. I didn't outwardly taunt her, but inside I was giving her a big razz-berry. As far as I was concerned it was Consumer Darwinism... only the strong would survive by getting their kid EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED!
Here's something we all should know: TOY AND ELECTRONIC MANUFACTURERS INTENTIONALLY CREATE SHORTAGES OF HOT ITEMS TO GENERATE BUZZ AND PROLONG SALES INTO THE NEW YEAR.
And we play along with them.
Those of us who call ourselves Christians are supposed to be different, but we have bought into the insanity just as much as everyone around us. The only difference is that we go to church in between our shopping forays and sing songs of hope, peace, joy and love while patting ourselves on the back for being so spiritually aware of the "Reason for the Season."
Our culture encourages us to act individually during Advent. The messages might be concealed in images of togetherness and family feasts during the Holidays, but the meaning behind the messages is always the same: "Rush! Spend! Hurry! Buy! Busy!" We rush into stories passing right by the homeless begging in the street. We speed by the Salvation Army bell ringers without dropping a dime. And even when we are compelled to take action and share what we have during the Holidays, we find sanitized and easy ways to do it: buying bags of groceries from Publix, donating to a charity online or something else that doesn't require any of our time or our presence.
Our culture also wants us to believe that our faith during this season should be private. I was amused at the battle between Walmart and Target a few years ago when Target advised it's employees to say "Happy Holidays" to customers rather than "Merry Christmas." Walmart, who knew it's clientele would dig it, made a huge deal out of having their greeters and employees stick with saying "Merry Christmas," in an attempt to show how "traditional" and sort of Christian their company is.
I'm enough of a realist (some might say cynic) to know that if it had been expedient and would have made them more money, Walmart would have had it's greeters say "Happy Holidays," too.
Because, according to our culture, faith doesn't belong in the public square, especially when that square is festooned with Holiday lights.
I blame Christians for this.
Our narrow interpretation of the Incarnation (the fact that God literally took on human form and became one of us) and what that means for followers of Christ has relegated Christians to irrelevance. We don't seem to understand that because of the Incarnation, we are called as followers of Jesus to embody him to the world.
When people encounter Christians, they shouldn't have to wonder where Jesus might have gone, they will see him and know what he's all about through the way we live our lives. But, as I mentioned earlier, we are no different than our surrounding culture. In the end, we act individually and acquiesce to the notion that faith doesn't play in public. We'll do our shopping, spend our money, busy ourselves beyond belief and then retreat to our churches to hear someone read from Luke chapter 2.
The Christian presence during this Season of Incarnation has been reduced to shrill, marginal voices complaining about the removal of Christ from Christmas.
This is not what God intended. Not in the least.
Third, our culture tellsus that meaningful moments can be bought. How many commercials have you seen already this year depicting picturesque family moments around the table, the tree, in a sleigh...? We are told in a hundred ways that if we are willing to pay the price, we can have the perfect Christmas and maybe even the perfect family... or perfect life. After all, anyone knows that the only way to have a truly meaningful Christmas is to schedule as many things as possible, spend more money than you should and buy as many things as you can for people who probably don't need them. In so doing, it's almost certain that you will find purpose, meaning and will be fulfilled as a person.
I have been reading I Thessalonians this week in preparation for my sermon. It's a Lectionary text--one of those passages of Scripture that are prearranged, so to speak, and organized according to season. Churches all over the world will be reading and learning from this same text on Sunday, which is the First Sunday of the Season of Advent. When I was a kid, I didn't go to churches who cared about Lectionaries and Advent. I had never even heard of the season of Advent until I was an adult and attended my first Presbyterian church. Anyway, it's Advent and I am preaching from the Lectionary. Alert my Baptist and Pentecostal relatives.
The Apostle Paul had a pretty basic theme to this first letter that he wrote to a small group of first-century Christians in Macedonia: God is the author of hope, peace, joy and love--all of which we have access to through Jesus Christ. And God's people are called to embody Jesus to the world. In other words... to live out the mystery of the Incarnation (God becoming flesh) in such a way that it's not really a mystery after all.
At one point in his letter, Paul offers a wish-prayer that the Thessalonians "increase and abound in love for one another and for all," and to "strengthen" their "hearts in holiness." For Paul, isolation and withdrawal was not an option for those who would embody Jesus to the world. In fact, the very reason why the Christian movement grew and spread was the way Christians engaged their culture and gave of themselves as they had been commanded to do by Jesus.
The secularization of Christmas is an issue that always pops up this time of year. In fact, as I was writing this a news bulletin was covered on the cable news channel I was watching about protests that were taking place outside malls and stores where the word "Christmas" had been eliminated in advertising and marketing. My guess is that Paul would find such a thing amusing. He would have been far more concerned that those of us who self-identify as Christians actually act like... Christians.
A few years ago, I took my youth group on a trip to some of the worst neighborhoods in Tallahassee in an effort to deliver fifty or so presents to needy children, who had either one or both parents in prison. We got lost multiple times because there were hardly any street signs and many of the dwellings were unmarked apartments. One family had been waiting for us for hours to arrive as we tried to find our way around the neighborhood. The children were waiting in the driveway in the chilly night air when we got to their small apartment--a run-down dwelling that was part of a government housing project. They had a tiny tree on a decrepit coffee table and there were some scraggly-looking lights hanging haphazardly in the window. The mother, a tired looking woman in her twenties cried and hugged us. The children danced around the room and tried to read their names on the presents we had brought them.
We were silent for a while as we drove home. The kids gave me grief over my driving, and the way we had wandered around in the dark in an unsafe neighborhood in a van full of presents. But there were things that we all wanted to say, and really didn't know how.
We wanted to say how unbelievable it was to realize that just a few presents could bring so much joy. We wanted to say how scary it had been to go somewhere where we felt so out of place. We wanted to say that we were glad we were all going back to our nice houses and to a different kind of Christmas--and how that made us feel surprisingly humbled and guilty all at once.
We also wanted to say that being the hands and feet of Christ was the most incredible thing that we could possibly do, and we all felt like our true selves by doing it.
How will the world see the Reason for the Season if those who call themselves Christians won't show them?