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I just finished watching another documentary.  This one, sent to me by my friend Margaret, is done by a group of creative performance protesters who travel across America as Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.  Yes, some Christians are bound to be offended by this, but I think it’s become apparent that shocking messages are the only ones that get through to a culture so numbed by advertising and entertainment.

The documentary is called What Would Jesus Buy? and you can watch it free online (90 mins).  In fact I hope you do watch it, even if you just watch a half hour or so, especially before you begin your Christmas shopping this year.

My favourite line: “you don’t need to buy a gift to give a gift.”

I feel anxious and unsettled most years as the Christmas season approaches, and particularly in those first few weeks following December 25th.  This is the earliest it has ever set in for certain.  The anxiousness comes from recognizing that as much as I try to be conscious of my consumerism, I am as much a product (yes, a product) of my culture as the next person.  I am sucked in by the advertisements, the discounts and the cheap and dirty happiness that shopping offers.  Of course we all know, this happiness isn’t real.   But are we doing anything to change that?

I attended a church service last Sunday, something that I don’t do very regularly, and noticed that on my seat was a little flyer advertising a Ten Thousand Villages Sale.  I love Ten Thousand Villages.  I love supporting artisan groups from developing nations with living wages.  But I was so disturbed by the headline on the flyer: “O Come All Ye Shoppers”.

I don’t want to be part of your target market.

When I was 17, I spent a week before Christmas in Nicaragua with Operation Christmas Child (the organization that collects gift-filled shoeboxes for kids in developing nations).  I was amazed to see the plastic Santa Clauses adorning the stores in the capital city, a city where huge numbers of children will wake up on December 25th, with no gifts, maybe even no food.  Like every other day, the children at La Chureca (the city dump) will sort through garbage looking for anything they can salvage or sell.  Exposed to dirty needles, toxic smoke from burning garbage and wild dogs, not to mention whatever disease float in the water that runs off the heaps of trash into their drinking water.

How can we tell our children that Santa brings gifts to children all over the world?

We need to be reminded that Santa is a lie.

Last year I celebrated Advent for the first time.  I am still very new to the tradition and am looking forward to rediscovering it in new depth this year.  I am looking forward to enjoying family holiday traditions (and maybe even starting some new ones) with my parents and my brothers, my sister-in-law and my niece.  But I think I will have to apologize to them because I can no longer participate in the consumerism of Christmas.

In the celebration of Advent I find hope.  In Advent I find a real acknowledgment that we, humanity, are lost without a saviour.  A saviour who, I think, would have nothing to do with the man in the red suit, placed into our imaginations by Coca-Cola, who’s only role is to convince our parents (or us) to buy, buy, buy.  In the celebration of Advent, I find giving.  Giving of ourselves instead of our credit cards.  In Advent I find time for remembrance and reflection, for gratitude and my family.

I am looking forward to the season of Advent, to learning more about its celebration and traditions.  I hope you’ll let me share them with you as I learn.

(I recognize and respect that everyone has different values and opinions about what Christmas means.  I don’t mean to offend anyone or belittle anyone’s traditions, especially my own family’s.  I do hope to cause all of us to think about whether we need to spend money to show love, or to celebrate Jesus or family.)

The mall across the street from my house put up their outdoor christmas decorations this week.  Isn’t it a little early to be diving into the consumerism of December 25th?  Yes, yes, I know Christmas is about so much more than shopping, but if are highest priorities are what we put the most time, energy and money into, than I think it’s safe to say that most North Americans put more into shopping for the Christmas season than they do on any of the other stuff (family, love, peace, hope, service to others).

I was intentional when saying service to others rather than giving to others because it’s too easy to get confused and think that giving requires spending money and the acquiring of material possessions.  I think there is a better form of giving, one that requires time and energy and sometimes stretching beyond comfort levels.

This video does such a good job of saying what I mean (and is actually where I started gleaning these thoughts from):

Consumerism ≠ Meaning

If you’re looking for a great alternative to buying more material possessions for someone who already has more than they will ever need (such as myself), consider Kiva gift certificates!  (Follow the link and click Kiva Gifts, near the top of the page.)  The idea is that you give a friend or family member a gift certificate that lets them lend the money to an entrepreneur in a developing country.  The entrepreneur uses the loan to grow their small business, and when the money gets paid back (usually in 6 months – 1 year) your friend can choose to reloan it to someone else or withdraw the money and use it for something else. (I personally like the reloaning option).

And if you haven’t heard of Buy Nothing Day, take a look at this website and consider re-evaluating your Christmas shopping and gift-giving plans.  (After working at Canadian Tire over one Christmas season, I realized the amount of money we spend on decorations is completely mindboggling! Surely we can think of things our money should go to more than another box of decorations.)  Maybe you don’t want to have a complete Buy Nothing Christmas, and that’s okay, but if you can, start looking for some things that you normally would spend money on that you don’t necessarily need this to buy this year.  I’m sure everyone can find gifts to give (and to ask for) that are based in something other than material want.

“The only thing to be regretted without qualification is for [us] to be perfectly adapted to totalitarian society. Then [we are] indeed beyond hope. Hence we should all be sick in some way. We should all feel near to despair in some sense because this semi-despair is the normal form taken by hope in a time like ours. Hope without any tangible evidence on which to rest. Hope in spite of the sickenss that fills us. Hope married to a firm refusal to accept any palliatives or anything that cheats hope by pretending to relieve apparent despair.”

 

Despair is something I have become more acquainted with in the last few months, beginning before Postmodernism was ever listed on my timetable, but certainly strengthened at times by the content and implications of our class discussions. I remember reflecting last semester on Annie Dillard’s analogy of an inner bell, hung inside her chest, which she describes as tolling “a long syllable, pulsing ripples up my lungs and down the gritty sap inside my bones…I felt the voiced vowel like a sigh or a note but I couldn’t catch the consonant that shaped it into sense” (266). I have become increasingly aware of my own ‘inner-bell’ as I have struggled to come to terms with a world that rarely meets my expectations for truth, beauty, or justice.

Yet after reflecting on Merton’s quote, I am forced to engage with the continuation of Dillard’s analogy. A few pages later, after watching a maple key fall from a tree, she continues with the imagery of this inner bell, saying “and the bell under my ribs rang a true note, a flourish as of blended horns, clarion, sweet, and making a long dim sense…” (273). After spending a few days visiting the L’Arche community in Cape Breton, I feel as though I have been able to return to my own community with renewed hope, and with that the possibility of acknowledging the truth, beauty and justice that encompasses our daily interactions (even as they lack definition or quantification). As Merton suggests, the ill-at-ease feeling received from a close analysis of our consumeristic society is in itself a sign for hope, because we are at least aware of a problem and at best aware of the possibilities for growth.

As an example, one of the questions raised by the postmodern ideal of multiversity is the possibility for a Universal Absolute God. I brought this question up in a recent discussion, after which we concluded that the process of searching for God is in itself cause for hope. (This all sounds vaguely reminiscent of some philosopher who said our idea of God is proof of his/her/its existence since God equals that which no other thing could be greater, and a God in reality would be greater than an idea of God.) But what I really mean to say is that I am learning to find hope in the questions, in the ache, in the despair – to be okay with being unsettled and restless because there is a lot about which we should be unsettled and restless. And as Dillard illustrates, the same bell that tolls our despair can also ring when encountered by truth, beauty, or justice, present in the world if sometimes only in those who feel sickened by their absence.

 

Joel Mason said something during his alumni induction speech at St. Stephen’s University, Class of 2009 Convocation ceremony that has stayed with me ever since.

“As you already know, the world is wide and full of beauty and agony.”

It’s true that we all know this.  We all experience joy and pain, sometimes in the same breath. But I wonder if we all know this.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think I’m only beginning to grasp the depth of its meaning (and I doubt I’m at the stage where I can truly communicate it).

I took a course in first year called Theological Reflections on Suffering, and to be honest, despite the excellent teaching and reading materials, I came out of the class with no answer to the question of why we suffer.  And that really deeply bothered me, and it still does sometimes.  Because I am so saddened/angered/grieved by what I see as a lot of mindless suffering in our society and in the world.  Perhaps my ideals are just too high.

But I think I am starting to understand, at least in part, what Joel was communicating.  The world is wide and full of beauty and agony.

I think they walk hand in hand, beauty and agony.

It’s only when you are able to see one that you can see the other.  If it weren’t for beauty, I would not be disturbed by agony.  If I didn’t believe justice, peace, hope were possible for humanity, I would not be grieved by their absence.  And the reverse must also be true, if it were not for the pain we experience, how could we experience beauty.

Kahlil Gibran (early twentieth century poet) wrote:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.  And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.  And how else can it be?  The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.  Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?  And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?  When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.  When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.  Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”  But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

I know a few people have been trying to tell me this for a long time, but I think it’s the kind of lesson that gradually sinks in over time.

And I think Joel is right, we already know this.  Deep inside, we understand this.  We just need to learn to be more aware of it.  And I think that takes ‘living awake.’  Some practical types might not like that phrase but I’ve grown accustomed to it.  To me, it represents being present to the moment and aware of ourselves, our surroundings, and other people.  It’s so easy to hit auto-pilot and start to coast.  But to truly see beauty and agony all around us, we must wake up. (But more on this in another post.)

In the end, we are broken.  But this is what makes us beautiful.  This is what gives us hope.

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