Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Birthday presents for Jesus

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Whose birthday is it anyway?
If Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, do we give him any gifts?
I find myself trying to swim through the thick of the advent season. I don’t really love shopping, or keeping track of what I’ve bought for whom, but I do love being able to give. I love demonstrating love and care to friends and family.
But do my gifts actually communicate my heart? Or do they simply fulfill my obligation?
Seduced by the slick ads in the Sunday paper, I am drawn irresistibly to the mall. I buy things I don’t need, things that are not on my list, and I realize when I get home, would be perfect for … nobody. Not even myself.
So I plan to return them, even before Christmas. Good grief.
As much as I want Christmas to be meaningful, to be about Jesus, resistance to the tide of materialism often feels futile.
I got an e-mail from my friend Karen Mains recently, with a link to the Advent Conspiracy website. It’s organizers suggest that rather than indebt ourselves to retailers, spending money on things nobody needs, that we invest in relationships, and give presents to Jesus, that is, to the poor. For what we give to the poor, we give to Jesus. Whatever you do for the least of these, he told us, you do for me.
I’ve often wanted to do this kind of thing: make donations to charity on behalf of those on my gift list. But I am afraid friends will feel gypped somehow, that they will be disappointed not to get the little trinket or book (I give a lot of books) that I usually buy them.
It feels like I’m imposing my charitable endeavors on friends, and frankly, a bit uncomfortable. But would I be willing to tell people, “don’t buy me anything—instead, donate to a charity?” I think that is the harder option. Especially when people just get you a gift and don’t ask—what do you want? To tell people what to get you feels a bit presumptuous. Or what if they tell you at the end of November—I’ve already bought your Christmas gift. Do I suggest they return it and donate the money.
The Advent Conspiracy has some great suggestions for families and groups—focusing on relationships, rather than shopping. And rather than giving unnecessary things, redirect that money to the poor. The website suggests letting God lead your giving, but it spotlights the African country of Liberia, where there is a desperate need for clean drinking water. Donating money so that deep wells can be constructed in small villages in Liberia will save lives. As in many third world countries, rural villages often use a local watering hole for all water functions. They bathe, wash clothes and draw drinking water, all in the same stagnant pond (in some cases, it's more like a puddle). Not surprisingly, the people in such circumstances, especially children, are often sick as a result. This is not an isolated problem. Millions of people all over the globe do not have access to decent water.
It truly is insane that we who have clean, purified tap water insist on spending millions a year to buy bottled water—which often comes from the same source our tap water does. What if you stopped buying bottled water, and donated that money to organizations that are digging wells in third world countries?
What does Jesus want for Christmas? Clean drinking water for people who have none seems like a good place to start.

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