Today, I share with you a poem from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. It is about recognizing your own voice on your journey, and so I’ve read it in mine (as opposed to, say, reading it with Ian McKellan’s or Meryl Streep’s voice.
My home page on my laptop is BBC news, and this morning, the first thing I saw, as I sipped hot coffee and cuddled under a warm blanket, was that Syrian refugees along the Syria-Lebanon border are living in makeshift camps, unable to form more formal camps, and they are burning their shoes to survive the harsh winter. This is not just a news story to read and move on from…these are human beings, children of God, and this is how they are living. As we enter the season of gift giving and receiving, it’s important to remember them. Today’s post will highlight ways we can give gifts that impact the world and our communities in powerful ways, instead of buying someone just another pair of socks. What a message it sends, to children and adults alike, if we give being mindful of those who suffer the injustices of poverty, hunger and isolation. If you’d like to give to support refugees in Syria, here is a good place to start. The rest of these resources are from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). They give helpful ideas for how to give gifts that are personal and meaningful, as well as transformative and far-reaching. Let’s give thoughtfully and compassionately this Christmas season. (Prepare yourself…there are a lot of links ahead!)
The Magi traveled a long distance to bring gifts to Jesus. Their gifts were items of value that honored the child and provided for the family. Today we are bombarded with messages of extravagance during the holiday season, and gift giving can be a tricky topic for many. Like the Magi, we, too, can try to find gifts that honor our loved ones, while also honoring Christ and remembering why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. Jesus and his family were poor. Christ was born in a manger surrounded by hay and animals.
It can be difficult to find the balance between honoring your loved ones with the latest thing and honoring the Christ to whom we strive to be faithful. Giving alternative gifts can be fun and uplifting if it is done in the spirit of love; however, if you are too aggressive or overbearing, your gift may not be well received. Take it slow and meet people where they are. Embody Christ in your giving and receiving this season. Gifts that honor Jesus are those that reflect God’s presence with us. Christ’s ministry reminds us that we are not to seek treasures on earth, but to build up our treasures in heaven. When you give, let the scriptures be your inspiration and give thoughtfully, with justice, kindness and humility.
Gifts of time and service
Gifts of time and service can be quite memorable. These gifts require thoughtful preparation and help build relational bonds. Sharing the gifts God has given you through service and teaching honors God and blesses others.
- Skills: If you are gifted with crafts, music, dance or other talents, give the gift of knowledge. Gifting a series of lessons empowers the people you love with new skills and abilities, while passing on some tradition and heritage.
- Games: You can give board games or a deck of cards with a promise to play. Teaching a new card game to a child or adult is a lasting gift.
- Meals: Give the promise of food and meals to people on your list. Promising to eat lunch with your children at their school once a month is a great way to spend more time with family.
- Homemade Gifts: Knitted items, framed photos, handcrafted toys, works of art and other personally made gifts show care and concern for the recipient. These gifts require time and thought to create.
- Commitment: Make a commitment to someone this season. Find ways to serve the people on your list by committing to care for them. You can shovel snow, prepare meals, plan events or schedule a vacation.
Gifts of giving
Give gifts that honor God by supporting church ministries through alternative giving. You can provide a donation to honor someone on your list.
- The Presbyterian Small Farmer Fund supports fair trade and organic farming throughout the world. Producer groups apply to the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Equal Exchange supports the fund with donations each year based on volume of sales from the Presbyterian Coffee Project. Individuals and congregations can also give to the fund.
- Give to Enough for Everyone. Support the church’s ministry of lifestyle integrity (and the creation of materials such as this one) by donating online.
- Give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program, make an additional gift to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering or support the Christmas Joy Offering.
- Microcredit loans provide people with opportunities to develop their communities. Learn more about microcredit and investing in Oikocredit.
Gifts of membership
Providing a gift that gives throughout the year shows your commitment to the recipient. Memberships are great gifts for people who have seemingly everything.
- Give or renew a membership. Discover the clubs and organizations to which the people on your Christmas list belong and sponsor their membership for the year.
- The gift of health. Instead of waiting for New Year’s Resolutions, give the gift of a gym membership along with a shared commitment to health. You and your loved one can enjoy time together in the gym.
- Magazines, journals and electronic subscriptions: Many publications have subscription fees, which make great gift ideas. Each month the recipient will be reminded of your generosity.
Fair trade gifts
God’s call to live our lives justly can take many forms. By being intentional with our spending we can share the blessings of prosperity while sharing our Christian call. Selecting fair trade products and avoiding sweatshop labor in your gifting celebrates God’s call to liberate the oppressed and to set captives free. Fair Trade options are not limited to coffee. Many items that you might give as gifts for Christmas can be found fair trade, which means that you will not be giving gifts made with slave or child labor and you will know that the people who worked hard making the products are being paid a wage they can live on.
- Coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate and snacks. The Presbyterian Coffee Project offers a variety of items to fill a holiday gift basket with fair trade goodies. You could whip up a batch of homemade marshmallows and create a memorable hot chocolate gift basket!
- Sports equipment. Fair Trade Sports offers a wide variety of sports equipment for the sports enthusiast on your list. Their products are produced by adult workers who are fairly paid and many products are made from sustainably harvested organic rubber.
- Buy American. Products made in the United States are less likely to be made under poor conditions or forced labor. Local toy shops can be great finds for wooden toys like blocks and trains. U.S. Made Toys can provide you with information on toys that are still made in the United States.
- Go global. Purchase fairly traded gifts from one of the PC(USA) Global Marketplace partners. Your gift will support the self-development of people throughout the world.
- Try to avoid sweatshops. While it may not be possible to satisfy everyone on your list with the above recommendations, you can find ways to be more responsible in giving by avoiding sweatshop labor. The2008 sweat free shopping guide is a great resource for sweat shop free products. Avoiding the producers in the Hall of Shame will also help to prevent some of the worst offenders from making it under your tree this season.
- Season tickets to the theater or other arts, sporting events or memberships to museums or science centers can be fun for all.
Throughout the scriptures we are reminded of God’s deep connection with us and our world. Sustaining life on the planet requires us to sustain the earth. In caring for the earth we are caring for all of God’s children and sustaining the diversity of created life. Many gifts can be environmentally responsible and support your concerns for the earth. These gifts can also serve as a way of teaching people to care for creation and one another. Eco-friendly gifts may help others to see God in new ways as one who cares about the world and all its people.
- Trees, plants and landscaping. If you have a green thumb or a gift for gardening, you can give out gifts of future promise. Providing seeds or cuttings from your own garden, teaching someone to garden, helping someone plan a garden or planting a tree together are all great gifts.
- CFLs or LEDs. It can be a little expensive to fit a whole house with Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) or Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) but the electricity savings will quickly offset these initial costs. Each month your loved ones will thank you as they pay lower electric bills and accumulate savings.
- Water bottles. The consumption of bottled water has huge environmental and humanitarian impacts. Providing someone you love with a reusable water bottle and possibly a water filter can prevent hundreds of flimsy plastic bottles from ending up in landfills. Drinking tap water helps prevent the privatization of water, which helps ensure enough water for everyone. Reusable bottles save oil and energy from being consumed in the production of new bottles. For more information on bottled water and its impact look into the Think Outside the Bottle Campaign. Sign the pledge yourself and include a copy for your loved one with your gift.
- Carbon offsets. Offsets provide a great way to give back through the planting of trees and development of new “green” technologies. TerraPass offers a number of ways to calculate and customize a carbon offset for each person on your list. For other options on carbon offsets and green tags visit The Center for a New American Dream.
- Reusable gift packaging. Minimize the impact that your gifts will have on local landfills by packaging them in reusable or biodegradable packaging. Consider using a gift bag or a gift basket. Wrapping gifts in blankets or table linens create practical and reusable packaging options. The possibilities are endless. Be creative and minimize your impact.
I had a Moment the other day. It was very chilly, and fog was blanketing every surface and curling around every tree, and I found myself on a familiar highway. It’s the road from Southern Pines to Cameron, one I travel very often. I know its gentle curves, I can recall the exact reach of the pine trees along it with my eyes closed and can drive it without even thinking much about it. But not that day. That day, fog narrowed my vision to what was immediately in front of me, and what was immediately behind me. If I looked too far backwards or too far forwards, all I saw was white mist. It felt almost claustrophobic, and strangely liberating.
How often we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘me’) are focused on the past: its choices and mistakes, its connections and disconnections, its joys and sorrows. Equally often am I focused on the future: what will the face looking back at me in the mirror look like in 5, 10, 15 years? What days will run together doggedly, and which days will change my life forever? Who will I be then, if not who I am now?
It’s often said that Advent is a time of moving towards Christmas. We religious-types like using words like “journey” (see post title, ha), “sojourn” and “pilgrimage” to describe it. But that foggy, chilly morning, I was reminded that Advent is taking this moment just as it is. Stopping long enough to admit that what was behind lies in the mists of memory and what is ahead remains a foggy mystery. We do not know what it will look like when God comes again, birthed into this world through ecstasy and pain. All we know, all I know right now, is the highway. The foggy, misty, unclear highway, where I’m only allowed to see enough to make the next choice, the next turn, one that is hopefully something of faithfulness.
The past is passed. The future is holding its breath. We simply have now, this moment, this day, this highway. It is enough, for now. Where will it take us?
As we journey from darkness to light this season, here is a passage from Frederick Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark. Buechner might just be my favorite modern theologian.
The Old Testament begins with darkness, and the last of the Gospels ends with it.
“Darkness was upon the face of the deep,” Genesis says. Darkness was where it all started. Before darkness, there had never been anything other than darkness, void and without form. At the end of John, the disciples go out fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. It is night. They have no luck. Their nets are empty. Then they spot somebody standing on the beach. At first they don’t see who it is in the darkness. It is Jesus.
The darkness of Genesis is broken by God in great majesty speaking the word of creation. “Let there be light!” That’s all it took.
The darkness of John is broken by the flicker of a charcoal fire on the sand. Jesus has made it. He cooks some fish on it for his old friends’ breakfast. On the horizon there are the first pale traces of the sun getting ready to rise.
All the genius and glory of God are somehow represented by these two scenes, not to mention what Saint Paul calls God’s foolishness.
The original creation of light itself is almost too extraordinary to take in. The little cookout on the beach is almost too ordinary to take seriously. Yet if Scripture is to be believed, enormous stakes were involved in them both, and still are. Only a saint or a visionary can begin to understand God setting the very sun on fire in the heavens, and therefore God takes another tack. By sheltering a spark with a pair of cupped hands and blowing on it, the Light of the World gets enough of a fire going to make breakfast. It’s not apt to be your interest in cosmology or even in theology that draws you to it so much as it’s the empty feeling in your stomach. You don’t have to understand anything very complicated. All you’re asked is to take a step or two forward through the darkness and start digging in.
Where the great slip gave way in the bank
and an acre disappeared, all human plans
dissolve. An awful clarification occurs
where a place was. Its memory breaks
from what is known now, begins to drift.
Where cattle grazed and trees stood, emptiness
widens the air for birdflight, wind, and rain.
As before the beginning, nothing is there.
Human wrong is in the cause, human
ruin in the effect–but no matter;
all will be lost, no matter the reason.
Nothing, having arrived, will stay.
The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon
passeth it away. And yet this nothing
is the seed of all–the clear eye
of Heaven, where all the worlds appear.
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return. The good gift
begins again its descent. The maker moves
in the unmade, stirring the water until
it clouds, dark beneath the surface,
stirring and darkening the soul until pain
perceives new possibility. There is nothing
to do but learn and wait, return to work
on what remains. Seed will sprout in the scar.
Though death is in the healing, it will heal.
Two years ago, I got in my Nana’s old car surrounded by boxes, with my fluffy dog in his bed in the passenger seat and drove from Texas to North Carolina, to make a home in a place I barely knew. We immediately hit it off, me and Carolina. I’m feeling reminiscent today and looked back at my old blog post from arriving here. I woke up for the first time in this place on a day much like today, grey and drippy, and beautiful in its own way. Here’s what I wrote then.
“Heaven is glimpsing early morning fog through sleek pine trees. The old saying goes that you miss the forest for the trees but with the flurry of excitement the last few days, I missed both the forest and the trees until this morning when I paused, looked up and said, “Wow.” I love this place. I love the charming post office, the lit-up Christmas wreath adorning the telephone pole outside of my house, the way people wave at you as they drive by, the astounding kindness of folks in making me feel welcome. Joe from church stopped by and we got to talking about old books and small towns and he explained the gift of Cameron really well, saying that as you drove from larger towns (which are very close by) into Cameron, you just felt yourself physically relax, breathe deeper and all the tension leave your body. People have a different way of living in small towns (it’s a village here, really) and it’s just delightful. I can be at Starbucks in fifteen minutes sipping gingerbread lattes, but I can also hear a cricket lullaby at night and a songbird wake-up call in the morning. Life is good. There’s so much more grace to be discovered here, but for now, I’m going to sleep in a new state, new house, new call, feeling very much like this is exactly where I’m meant to be. And with that, I can sleep easy, listening to the crickets as I drift off.”
I still feel like this is exactly where I’m meant to be, and am grateful to wake up amongst the pine trees that have become home to me.
A prayer for the second Sunday in Advent, beautifully written by Rev. Cheryl Meban, a Presbyterian minister in Northern Ireland.
The longing behind
All our longing
is for you, source of life.
Though we set our hearts on trinkets
– imitations and reflections –
you want to give us pure gold.
Though we treat ourselves with trivia
when you would satisfy us with your very Self:
Power to heal the world
to feed the hungry
to console the desolate;
Love to reconcile enemies
to renew all things
to restore Creation;
Wisdom, Courage, Self-control
which is freedom, joy and peace
Oh, Living Spirit dwell in us
Make us your people
the temple of your presence
that all the world may know your life,
be cleansed of all evil
and dance in eternity to your delight
This graffiti-filled stained-glass window was created by the famous (or perhaps infamous) artist Banksy, with the help of students from a Los Angeles school, in 2011. It was shown in the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. I’ll not give any of my own commentary here, so as to let the art speak for itself, but take a few minutes, clear your mind and heart and let God speak to you through it. What Advent message does it bring to you? (That’s not a rhetorical question — leave a comment and let me know!)
I was going to attempt writing an articulate Advent reflection on the life and witness of Nelson Mandela, who to me embodied so much of the radical forgiveness, transformation and reconciliation Jesus Christ was all about. I was going to reference Isaiah 61:
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.