Keeping Christmas

You know that Christmas is over for most of the world because the outdoor Christmas decorations are coming down, and Christmas trees already are set out by the curb for pickup with the trash.

It’s sad how quickly Christmas disappears every year. It’s also sad how few people celebrate Christmas throughout the entire 12‑day season.

If the birth of Jesus is the monumental event we proclaim it to be, then one day is hardly enough to celebrate it. If the birth of Jesus is the history-changing event we proclaim it to be, even a season of 12 days seems inadequate.

What we really need is a lifetime of celebration, a way to keep Christmas the whole year round, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

How can we do that? How do we keep the Christmas spirit alive in us not only for a day and not only for a season but for an entire lifetime?

One of my favorite secular texts for Christmas is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. As the book opens, Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserable skinflint. By the story’s end he is a new man. He vows: “I will keep Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” Dickens concludes: “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Dickens never explains how Scrooge kept Christmas well, let alone how we might do it. I explore some ways we might try in my new book, titled Keeping Christmas. I’ve also assembled a list of things we can do to keep Christmas the whole year. This list is probably 20 years old, but it hasn’t changed much since I first put it together.

There are 12 days of Christmas, so here are 12 ways to keep Christmas alive.

No. 1 is simple and easy. Keep a favorite Christmas decoration (perhaps a small Nativity scene) out all year long. You probably do this by accident already. You’ve got all the boxes of decorations tucked away in the far corner of the attic or basement, and you discover something you missed. Why not keep one out on purpose, just to remind you of the season of joy?

No. 2. Sing a joyous song. Just as the angels sang glory to God, sing a Christmas carol, or listen to Christmas music, whenever you feel like it, even in July. I don’t mean “Frosty the Snowman” or other winter songs, but rather the songs of Christmas, songs of faith and hope and love and joy and peace.

One small church that I once served had no choir, so in place of the choir we had a brief hymn sing every Sunday. People would call out the name or number of songs that they wanted to sing. Two or three times year, whatever the season, someone would choose a Christmas carol. We all chuckled every time, but we still cherished those songs, no matter what time of year we sang them.

No. 3. In the tradition of Saint Nicholas, be a “secret Santa” to someone whose spirits you can lift with a simple service or gift. According to legend, Saint Nick was careful to give in secret, partly so that no one would feel indebted to him. It’s a great example to follow. One way to do it is to continue our Advent and Christmas Challenge through the next several days. Do something good for someone, and leave a card saying why you did it.

In other seasons, you wouldn’t want to use the card, but you might add a simple note that says, “From a friend,” or “Wishing you the best,” and leave it at that.

No. 4. Just as Jesus bore our sorrows, help others bear their sorrow over a significant loss. Send a card, make a call, drop by. Find some small way to let others know you care, and you share their loss, even if it does not directly affect you.

No. 5. Just as Jesus came to forgive, find it in your heart to forgive someone who has wronged you. Forgiveness is the essence of Christian life. It’s also very hard. We in the church don’t often model forgiveness very well, so the rest of the world lacks a good example to follow. Other people might understand forgiveness better it if we practiced it better.

No. 6. Just as Jesus came to heal, visit someone who is ill to ease their misery and speed their recovery. There are times when people aren’t up to visits and don’t want to be visited, and those are good times to stay away. But if you’ve ever spent more than a day in a hospital bed or sick at home, you know how boring it is, how quickly the experience saps hope from you, and how good it is to be visited by someone who cares.

No. 7. Bake cookies to help someone celebrate a special occasion, or take a meal to someone who is sick or moving or mourning. Sharing food is a good way of helping in many situations. Just be sure you don’t take cashew chicken to someone with a nut allergy!

No. 8. Bring a friend to worship the King whose coming you celebrate at Christmas. Notice that I said “bring” a friend. Don’t just “invite” a friend. Inviting someone is good, but you’ll have more success getting them to church if you offer to pick them up, and maybe even take them out to brunch afterward. It’s an easy and effective form of evangelism.

No. 9. When someone’s name or face crosses your thoughts, send the person a card or note to say, “I’m thinking of you.” That fleeting thought that reminds you of someone may be the Holy Spirit’s way of nudging you to get involved. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been glad I followed such nudgings, and how many times I’ve been sad because I failed to follow through. Maybe instead of a note or a card, you should simply make a phone call or arrange a visit in person. Do whatever the Spirit seems to be hinting.

No. 10 could have been No. 1. The best way to keep Christmas all year is to keep on celebrating. One of my favorite movies of the season is “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” a musical version of the Dickens story. Paul Williams wrote a song for it titled “Thankful Heart.”

It says we should live so that every evening will end and every day will start with a grateful prayer and a thankful heart. Whenever you wake up and whenever you go to bed, say, “Thank you, Jesus for coming into my life.”

No. 11 continues the thought. Let every sunrise and every sunset remind you that each day is a gift from God. Life is a gift. Cherish and celebrate it.

Finally, No. 12, above all else, live for Jesus in all you do. As another Paul Williams song from that movie says, use every breath you take to sing God’s praise.

Or as our text from the letter to the Colossians puts it, clothe yourselves with love and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts – and whatever you do, in word, or deed, do it in the name of Jesus.

That is the spirit that inspires these final thoughts from Henry van Dyke, an American clergyman and educator who may be best known for his story “The Fourth Wise Man.” This is called “Keeping Christmas.”

There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

            Are you willing…

  • to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you;
    • to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
    • to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;
    • to see that other men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
    • to own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life;
    • to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.

            Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

            Are you willing…

  • to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
    • to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
    • to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
    • to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
    • to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
    • to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;
    • to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—

Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world — stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death — and that the blessed life that began in Bethlehem two thousand years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?

Then you can keep Christmas. And if you can keep it for a day, why not always? But you can never keep it alone. Don’t even try to keep it alone. But keep it, if you can, the whole year round.

May you continue to have a blessed Christmas season.

The message “Keeping Christmas” was delivered at Edgerton United Methodist Church on Dec. 29, 2019, by the Rev. James Hopwood. The text for the day was Colossians 3:12-17.

Love all

Joseph, who becomes the adoptive father of Jesus, initially wants nothing to do with him. Joseph has good reason to believe that his bride-to-be has been unfaithful to him. He resolves to wash his hands of this woman and the brat she will bring into the world.

Then he has a dream. An angel tells him what he should do. Accept Mary as your wife. Accept her child as your own. Name him Jesus, meaning “God saves.” For this is what the prophet meant when he wrote about a child named Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”

God saves by being with us. God makes a personal investment in us by becoming one of us, walking with us, meeting us face to face, looking us in the eye.

We call this incarnation. You know how “chili con carne” means “chili with meat”? Incarnation means God with flesh on. God becomes incarnated in Jesus, present to us in a personal way in Jesus. In the words of the Apostle Paul, God empties himself in taking human form. (Philippians 2.7)

Surely God pours all of the divine self that is possible into this human form, but God becomes severely limited in doing so. The eternal Christ who becomes Jesus has to humble himself, Paul says. Literally as well as figuratively, he must lower himself to human level. (Philippians 2.8)

We can’t pretend to fathom how it works. It is beyond our understanding how God can be present to us in a singular way in the form of a limited human being while at the same time being everywhere present to everything and everyone as Lord of the universe.

It doesn’t cost God a dime to do this. Rather, it costs God everything. God comes to us as an infant wearing a diaper. The experience must be, in the fullest sense of the term, humiliating.

Think of some dignified grandfatherly or grandmotherly figure in your life. Now imagine that person humbling himself or herself to meet you as a little person in a diaper. That is only a fraction of the degradation God must endure in coming to us as Jesus. It’s only the start. It ends with Jesus, as naked and as helpless as the day he was born, dying on a cross, out of love for us.

No wonder Paul exclaims, “Thanks to be God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9.15)

The best gifts that we can give are somewhat like God’s gift. They are incarnational. They are personal. They may not cost much money. But they are very expensive in terms of our personal investment, all out of love for the one who receives them.

*  *  *  *

We have turned it into a consumer event, but God coming to us as the infant Jesus is fundamentally a relational event. It is a giving of self.

The creators of the Advent Conspiracy suggest that we can worship God more fully by imitating such giving. They invite us to spend less on material gifts, to give more of ourselves to our loved ones and to love all by buying one less gift for a loved one and giving that money to a cause that will help people in great need.

In this way, we can begin to embody God’s love for all people. We can make our love real in our actions.

The Advent Conspiracy leaders tell a story to explain why it’s necessary for us to make our love real in such concrete ways. It’s a story that also explains why the initial focus of the movement was to drill wells in the name of Jesus.

They had gone to Africa with representatives of Living Water International to see firsthand the need for safe drinking water in developing nations. In Liberia, they met a village chief who told them that many of his people had died because of illnesses they got from their scummy, contaminated water source.

We will drill a well for you, they told the chief. We will do this in the name of Jesus.

The chief didn’t celebrate. He didn’t whoop and holler. He didn’t even smile. He just looked at them. They wondered whether he had misunderstood what they said. No, he understood. Then why wasn’t he happy? Because, he said, “Others have made promises in the name of this Jesus, but they were never kept.”

Others had promised to provide clean water in the name of Jesus, but none had ever provided it. Their intentions were good, but good intentions are never enough. People were still dying from water-borne diseases. To the people of this village, the name of Jesus meant only broken promises.

Better, perhaps, that we should never say the name of Jesus than say the name and fail to follow through. Better, perhaps, that we should fail to represent Jesus at all than to misrepresent him by failing to imitate him in our actions.

Let me tell you two stories that are so powerful that I am blown away by them. One story involves a fellow named Thornton. He is the son of a friend of mine. Thornton had a friend named Phil, who had kidney disease.

Phil was on the transplant list for several years, but his condition deteriorated to the point that he was going to die without an immediate transplant. Thornton donated one of his kidneys to save his friend Phil.

The second story is more complicated. It involves a young Gardner woman named Alli Shappel. You may have heard about her Thursday night on Fox4 News. She wanted to donate a kidney to her childhood pastor. But they weren’t a good match. So she volunteered to become what’s known as an “altruistic donor,” meaning that she would donate a kidney to a stranger, anyone in need.

That set in motion a chain involving four donors and four recipients, including her pastor. The kidney she donated didn’t go to her pastor, but it still saved him from dying of kidney disease.

Her pastor is Carl Olson, whom I’ve known for a dozen years. He’s pastor of First Baptist Church of Paola. I celebrate Alli’s gift that helped save Carl and others, and Thornton’s gift that saved Phil. But the enormity of these gifts weighs heavily upon me.

Obviously, there are limits to such heroic measures. While you are alive, you can donate a kidney only once. But doing it once is such an incredible act of giving.

The Advent Conspiracy is about spending less on frivolous things so that we can give more of ourselves in important ways. One important way is giving of ourselves to loved ones. Another is giving to others whom God calls us to love in a less intimate way.

It’s not enough to love those who love you, Jesus says. (Matthew 5.16) Everybody does that. God holds you to a higher standard. God wants you to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22.39)

And who is your neighbor? Anyone in need. (Luke 10.25 37) That’s the gist of the story Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan. You show your love for God by showing your love for those in need.

Jesus says, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

When we do good to someone, Jesus takes it personally. God takes all of our actions personally. That’s how important we are to God. And that’s why our behavior is important. Everything we do has consequences beyond ourselves. When we give to the least of our brothers and sisters, we give to God.

That is why on Christmas Eve you’ll have another opportunity to give to the Emergency Fund at Edgerton Elementary School. It helps teachers and administrators help children in need – when they show up in winter in shabby shoes, or no socks, or a shirt in tatters, or when they need underwear or soap or a toothbrush.

Children are truly the least of these. As much as we pay lip service to our children in this society, we don’t seem to value them very highly. If we truly valued them, would we constantly bicker about school funding? Would our foster care system and other safety nets so consistently fail them?

This offering is one way of showing the world that Christmas means more to us than brightly wrapped packages under the tree. It means the birth of God’s love in us. It means that we love God, and because we love God, we love all others who – like us – are created in the image of God.

It means not only that we have good intentions, but that we will make these intentions a reality through our actions.

We believe that when our hearts are oriented toward Jesus, the rest of the tenets of the Advent Conspiracy will fall into place. The way we spend, give and love will radically change when it comes from a place of true worship. And that, as we said at the start of the Advent season, is what life is all about. Life is a way of worship, a way of living to the glory of God.

*  *  *  *

Early Christians calculated that Jesus was born on December 25, which was then the winter solstice. We just celebrated the solstice yesterday, on December 21. The date has drifted because of imperfections in the old Julian calendar.

The winter solstice is the first official day of winter. It’s the shortest day and the longest night of the year. From the summer solstice in June, the days have grown ever shorter, day after day. Now, at the winter solstice, the sun shines the least hours of all the year. As dark as it is, this is actually a day of promise. It is the day the sun is reborn. From this day forward, the days will gradually get longer.

It is truly the birthday of the Son – not the Victorious Sun of Roman mythology but the Son of Righteousness seen by the Hebrew prophets.

Symbolically, this is the perfect time for Jesus to be born. Our lives can’t get any darker than this. His birth offers us hope. In the deepest darkness of winter, God comes to us in person.

Whatever date it was, on whatever long night it was, Jesus was born at the midnight of our lives. He comes to us when we need him the most. God always comes to us when we need God the most.

Have a truly blessed Christmas!

“Love all” was preached on Dec. 22, 2019 at Edgerton United Methodist Church by the Rev. James A. Hopwood. Fourth Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1:18-25

Give more

Our scripture readings for last Sunday and today are obviously linked. Last week, the angel Gabriel announced the birth of John to his father, Zechariah, and Zechariah responded with the praise song we call Benedictus. Today, Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to his mother, Mary, and Mary responds with the praise song we call Magnificat.

Luke, our gospel writer, structures their stories to make the parallels obvious. John, who will prepare the way for Jesus, is born six months before Jesus. John’s mother, Elizabeth, is long past the normal age of child-bearing. Jesus’ mother is young and still a virgin. Both births count as miraculous, though in different ways.

Mary humbly accepts the role she will play in God’s plan to save the world. But she has few illusions about how easy it will be. Gabriel brings good news to her and to the faithful of Israel, but it’s bad news for just about everybody else.

There’s an old song that prattles on about “gentle Mary, meek and mild.” This is a young woman with grit and spunk. (She might be a role model for Greta Thunberg, among others.) She knows that God will use her boy to turn the world upside-down, and she celebrates the turnover.

After all, this is the God who scatters the proud, knocks the powerful off their thrones, elevates the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Bring it on, she says!

Jesus has, indeed, turned the world upside-down. But we’re still waiting for that other part. In today’s world, the proud and powerful rule, the rich are filled with good things, and poor and the desperate are sent away hungry.

The descendants of Abraham are still waiting for fulfilment of that ancient promise of justice and righteousness and peace. When will that happen, O Lord? If you’re waiting for us to make it a reality, you may wait another 2,000 years. Isn’t this something only you can do? Isn’t this the real promise of Advent and Christmas?

*  *  *  *

Last Sunday I asked, “What was the worst Christmas present you’ve ever got?” This Sunday, I’ll ask, “What was the best Christmas present you’ve ever got?” No fair answering, “Jesus.”

Jesus is God’s special gift. But to understand why Jesus is such a special gift, it helps if we understand what makes any gift special. So, think for a moment about the best Christmas gift you ever got from another human being.

What makes it best? Is it the size of the gift? The appropriateness of the gift? The uniqueness of the gift? Or perhaps a combination of all these things?

I said something last Sunday that you may think a little odd. I said that a gift is not about the giver but about the person who receives the gift. At least, that’s the way it ought to be.

Good gifts delight the person who receives them – and not just because of the thing they receive. The greatest delight comes in knowing that someone cares enough about you to know that this is something that would delight you.

That’s why some of your favorite gifts probably were the least expected. Because you didn’t even know that you wanted or needed the gift until someone who knows you even better than you know yourself decided that this was something that would delight you.

Once you saw it, you recognized how perfectly fitting it was. Until that moment, the thing may never have been on your mind. You might have walked right by it in a store a hundred times and never given it a thought. But someone who knows you better than you know yourself concluded that this would be the perfect gift for you.

It’s perfect not because it suits the giver, but because it suits you. What makes the gift perfect is not only that it suits you but also that someone knew that it would suit you because that person knows you so well and cares so much about you.

Yes, it really is the thought that counts.

I suspect that the gifts you find most delightful are delightful because they celebrate a relationship. The best gifts are about the recipient, not the giver. But they celebrate the relationship of the recipient and the giver.

If you’re married, look at your wedding ring. Whether it cost $400 or $4,000 matters less to you than what it stands for. It stands for your relationship with your spouse. It was given to you as a sign of that relationship. It celebrates that relationship.

The best gifts are relational gifts. They are the gift of yourself to another. The wedding ring that Linda placed on my finger was a gift to me signifying the gift of herself to me, just as the ring that I placed on her finger was a gift to her signifying the gift of myself to her.

I gave myself with that ring, but the gift wasn’t about me. It was about her and for her. And her gift to me wasn’t about her; it was about me.

The best gifts are relational gifts. They may, in fact, be quite common things such as socks and sweaters, because it really is the thought that counts.

I have a collection of Father’s Day, birthday and “no special occasion” cards that were made for me by my daughters when they were children – and some similar cards made by my young grandson.

Sorry, Hallmark, I treasure these cards far more than anything you could ever produce. “World’s best Dad” written in crayon on construction paper cannot be surpassed by anything machine made.

Once upon a time, all Christmas gifts were handmade because they had to be. Then came the machine age. In the late 1800s it became unfashionable to give handmade gifts. Handmade gifts were considered tacky, unless done by children, and then only up to a certain age. Everybody knew that the best gifts were store bought.

It’s interesting how things have turned again. These days, we consider handmade gifts superior to the store bought. Why? Because they involve a greater personal investment by the giver.

It’s really not about presents. It’s all about presence. That is, it’s really not about presents with a “ts” at the end, meaning material gifts. It’s really all about presence with a “ce” at the end, meaning personal involvement.

The creators of the Advent Conspiracy think we should give fewer gifts that come in a box and more gifts that come from, in and through our very selves. Presents with a “ts” are tokens of our love. Presence with a “ce” show our love most directly.

Why give a token when you can give the real thing? Why give a token of your love when you can show your love in person? Your presence with a “ce” – your time, your attention, your energy, your creativity, your personal investment – mean so much more to those who receive such a gift.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the times that my family can get together. Even if we don’t actually do much of anything when we are together, just being together is the greatest gift I could receive from them.

There are perhaps only two occasions when presents with a “ts” are preferable to presence with a “ce”. One is when you are separated by geography or circumstance – when you live too far away to get back to grandma’s house, or when you are in the military or some other service occupation far away. Then you must send a gift in a box because you can’t give yourself in person.

The other occasion is when the other person’s needs are so great and so urgent that you best show that you care by providing material things such as food, clothing or shelter. Then you give money or you give the present in a box because by itself your presence with a “ce” cannot fill the need. By itself, your presence is not enough.

Remember that when Jesus encountered someone in physical distress, he always healed the person right away. He relieved their immediate physical distress before he attempted to address their other needs. He showed his presence in action, in ways we cannot.

The creators of the Advent Conspiracy suggest that you give one less gift to a loved one so you can give something to someone in need. Chances are, your loved one will never miss that gift. But the person in need may treasure such a gift because it arrives at just the right time and tells that person that she, too, is loved; that he, too, is valued – even if even by someone they’ll never meet.

It’s possible that receiving that gift could even change a life. Have you ever given someone a gift that changes that person’s life? Have you ever received such a gift?

In Jesus, God gives us God’s presence, God’s very self. Some days, even that doesn’t seem enough, when we realize how far the world is from God’s dream for it. Then we remember that Jesus is called Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”

And having God with us, feeling God’s presence, helps make the long wait more bearable. It’s a cliché, but what we all want for Christmas is peace on earth and goodwill to all.

That’s the promise of Christmas. Let us continue to cherish that promise, even as we await its fulfillment.


“Give more” is a message that the Rev. James Hopwood intended to preach Dec. 15, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas. He was unable to reach the church because of a snowstorm. However, 28 people carried on quite well without him. The scripture readings for the day were Luke 1:26-33 and 46-55.

Spend less

In our worship time together, we are going to be dancing lightly through the stories of Jesus’ advent. We set the scene last Sunday with an ancient prophecy of God’s hope for a peaceful world.

Today we look at how God starts to bring it about, beginning with the story of Jesus’ cousin John – or, rather, the story of John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Zach and Liz are good, faithful people who have tried to honor God with their lives – and they have in all ways but one. They have no children – a major failing in their culture. Elizabeth bears the brunt of the shame, because it’s always assumed that it’s the woman’s fault she can’t get pregnant, as if fault has any part in it.

Zach is a priest, but he’s what you might call bivocational. Priesthood is an inherited occupation, and there are so many priests that few of them can serve in the temple full-time. Most serve a two-week term once a year.

It’s during one of these stints that Zach is chosen to light incense in one of the most secluded and quiet and holy and – let’s face it, scary – inner rooms of the sanctuary. And it’s there that he encounters an angel. He’s scared out of his wits. The angel announces that the old couple’s prayers have been answered. They’ll soon have a son who will be great in the Lord’s eyes.

Zach scoffs. He and Liz are too old for that kind of thing. The angel angrily says, “You talk too much of things you know nothing about. You can just spend the next nine months unable to talk at all.”

So Liz gets pregnant and Zach can’t speak until John is born. Then Zach bursts forth in speech. We know it today as the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus, Latin for the first word, “Blessed,” as in “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for God has looked favorably upon us.”

Their son, John the Baptizer, will indeed prepare a way for the Lord. He’ll live out those ancient prophecies about building a highway for God’s arrival – as Isaiah said, raising the low places and lowering the high places to make a straight and level roadway. (Isaiah 40.3-4)

During Advent, we also try to make a highway for God – a highway in our hearts. So on this second Sunday of the season, we light a candle of peace and we ponder some of the ways we celebrate the coming of Jesus. Today, we ponder the custom of Christmas gift giving.

*  *  *  *

Think for a moment about the worst Christmas present you ever got. You remember it, I’m sure. You opened the package with the usual expectation and hope, and then you got this sudden, empty feeling in your stomach and you thought, “Whatever in the world am I going to do with that?”

Now try to consider the gift from the point of view of the person who gave it to you. Whatever in the world was she thinking? Was she even thinking? Or was this one of those “white elephant” gifts that she got at work, and now she’s “re-gifting” it to you? She’s passing it on to you, knowing that you’ll probably pass it on to somebody else – unless you have the gumption to pitch it in the trash, hoping that it gets buried so deep in the landfill that it never again sees the light of day.

Oh the games we play at Christmas! The last thing Uncle Robert probably needs is another sweater, but you get him one anyway because you can’t think of anything else he might need, and you haven’t seen him for long enough in long enough to have the vaguest idea what he might prefer.

Of course, you don’t know what size he wears, either, so you settle on Large. Maybe he likes it loose – or tight, as the case may be. If it doesn’t fit, or he doesn’t like the color or the pattern, he can always take it back and exchange it for something he really wants. That’s what gift receipts are for, right?

Meanwhile, the number of service providers who have their hand out to you is almost staggering: the person who does your hair or your nails, your chiropractor or therapist, child care provider, newspaper carrier, dog walker, housekeeper, lawn mower, snow shoveler…

You wonder how our celebration of the birth of Jesus turned into such a display of greed, paranoia and despair. This is Jesus, after all – the one who said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) Why do we celebrate his birthday by giving mounds of stuff to people we hardly know and expecting some of them to give us stuff in return?

Mark Twain once said, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” It’s true of Christmas as well. Everybody complains about how impersonal and commercial Christmas has gotten, but hardly anybody does anything about it.

Here’s a quote to ponder. “There are worlds of money wasted at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants and nobody cares for after they are got.”

That quote comes from novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. She’s the one who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she said that in 1850. That’s 169 years ago. A lot of things have changed in 169 years. Christmas has changed, too, but maybe not as much as you might think. It was a mess then, too.

Another novelist of Stowe’s day supplied us with a one-word reply that shuts down any criticism of Christmas excess. Charles Dickens is the novelist, A Christmas Carol is the novel, and, of course, the powerful word is “Scrooge.” All you have to do is hint that someone may be Scroogelike, and you’ve won your case. No one wants to be known as a Scrooge. So hardly anyone dares to criticize the excesses of our cultural Christmas.

Economist Joel Waldfogel is among those who dares. Ten years ago he wrote a book titled Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

Waldfogel is actually not against giving gifts at Christmas. He just thinks they ought to be good gifts. He thinks most of the billions of dollars that we Americans spend on gifts each year is wasted and benefits nobody because it buys junk that nobody wants or needs. If you want to give him a gift, he says, “Why don’t you do something good for someone else and say it’s in my name, and everyone’s happy.”

That is the essence of the Advent Conspiracy. It’s about worshipping Christ better by spending less on some gifts, investing ourselves more deeply in our relationships, and loving all by doing good in Christ’s name for those Christ calls the least of our brothers and sisters.

The Advent Conspiracy is not a campaign against Christmas. It is not even a campaign against gift giving. It is a campaign against mindless adherence to cultural norms, and wasting valuable resources on meaningless junk.

The campaign also has a positive side. It is for the joyous celebration of our Savior’s birth. It is for giving thoughtful, meaningful gifts to those who are close to you, whose needs and wants you know. And it is for giving generously to others who have so very little.

Let’s talk money. Last year, retail sales during the holiday season set a record of $707.5 billion. Let’s put figure that in perspective. This year, Americans were expected to spend $490 million on Halloween costumes for their pets.

Do these numbers tell you that something is seriously wrong with our society? The creators of the Advent Conspiracy talk about consumer religion, the religion of the marketplace, the religion of the shopping mall, the religion of people who thoughtlessly enslave themselves to destructive cultural idols.

Some years ago social scientists coined a new term for this sickness. The term is affluenza. It’s a mental and physical illness caused by the constant pursuit of more stuff. Remember the last time you had the flu, and you couldn’t stop throwing up? When you have affluenza, you can’t stop shopping. You feel healthy only when you are spending and acquiring.

You can get the 24-hour flu, but there is no 24-hour version of affluenza. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it permanently. You’ll fight this disease the rest of your life.

A century ago, people suffered from a disease that caused their bodies to waste away. Today we know that disease as tuberculosis. Back then it was called consumption. Friends, we are dying of consumption. It is causing us to waste away in body and mind and spirit. It is killing us. And unless we take the cure, it will destroy our society.

Affluenza-style consumer religion says that love is measured by the size of the gifts you buy for people. If that’s the case, you had better spend a lot, or people will begin to think you’re not a loving person, you’re a Scrooge. The unwritten rule is that love has a dollar sign on it, and the bigger the dollar sign, the more you love the person you’ve giving it to.

Big gift, big love. Little gift, little love. No gift, no love. It’s so very simple.

A modest Christmas for a typical family can cost $600 or $700 for gifts alone. Call it a $1,000 Christmas, altogether.

Bill McKibben raised a stir a few years ago when he began advocating what he called the Hundred Dollar Holiday. McKibben is a social activist, so he’s used to taking a lot of heat. But he got scorched for suggesting that people cut their holiday spending by 90 percent.

We are so self-centered. We think the gift is about the giver. It’s not about the giver. It’s about the one who receives the gift.

That’s what makes good gifts good. Good gifts delight the person who receives them. And the delight isn’t just in the thing itself. The delight is in knowing that someone knows you well enough to be sure that this is what would delight you and cares enough to track it down and give it to you.

That’s one of the reasons it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Because giving moves the spotlight off of you and onto the other person. We self-centeredly want to make it about us, about the giver. But gifts are not about the giver. Gifts are about the one who receives them.

That’s why thoughtful gift shopping is so difficult. You’ll know it when you see it, but you may do a lot of looking before you find it. Once you’ve found it, you delight in knowing how much delight it will give to the person who receives it. Both of you delight in the gift – but only because you know the gift is about the recipient, not the giver.

*  *  *

If what I have just said is true, then God’s good giving to us is not about God but about us. Actually, it is very much about God, but God makes it about us, by loving us and by giving good gifts to us. And the greatest gift of all is the gift of God’s presence, supremely revealed to us in Jesus.

Next Sunday we’ll talk less about the giving of presents with a “ts” on the end, meaning material gifts, and more about the giving of presence with a “ce” on the end, meaning the giving of your very self.

Because that’s what God gives us at Christmas – God’s presence, God’s very self.

“Spend less” is a message preached Dec. 8, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood. The scripture reading for the day is Luke 1.5-151, 68-79

Advent Conspiracy 1: Worship fully

Let’s walk by the Lord’s light, Isaiah says.

Most of us want to do that, to be best of our understanding and the best of our capability.

We want to do what’s right. We want to walk in paths that are well-lighted by God’s instruction for right living. There are widely divergent ideas about what right living amounts to, but whatever we perceive it to be, we want to do it. We want to live in ways that are attuned to God’s heartstrings.

What that means is, what we really want to do is worship God fully.

Some people have the idea that worship is what you do in church on Sunday morning. Some people have even more truncated notions than that. Some think worship means singing, and everything else you do on Sunday morning is just an annoyance you put up with between songs. Even worse, some think that the sermon is the main event, and everything revolves around it.

But worship is far more than singing, and far more than preaching, and far more than plunking your bottom in a pew or chair for an hour or more on Sunday morning. Worship is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year endeavor. Worship is not a part of living; it is living. Worship is not something you do part-time; it’s your full-time occupation.

It’s a lot like breathing. If you stop breathing, you die. If you stop worshiping, you may still be breathing, but you’re not fully alive anymore.

That’s why “worship fully” is the first of the four key principles of the Advent Conspiracy.

Rest assured, the Advent Conspiracy is not like those other conspiracies you hear so much about these days. You know, those wacko theories about how sinister forces are out to undermine our sacred values and destroy our way of life.

No, the Advent Conspiracy is nothing like that at all. It’s a very public and very loose union of churches and individuals with one goal in mind – and that is, bring some sanity to our celebration of Christmas. We want to actually celebrate the birth of Jesus rather than drive ourselves crazy observing traditions that have little meaning for us and drive ourselves to bankruptcy buying tacky gifts for people who already have everything they need.

The movement was started more than a dozen years ago by three young pastors. They range from fundamentalist to progressive in theology but they all lead non-traditional churches and they all passionately love Jesus. They are Rick McKinley of Imago Dei Community in Portland; Chris Seay of Ecclesia community in Houston; and Greg Holder of The Crossing in St. Louis.

I’ve been promoting the Advent Conspiracy since about its second or third year. It fits nicely into the themes of Keeping Christmas, my new book. Like many books, it has been in the works a long time. It started as a guide about how to prepare for Christmas without being distracted by all the hustle and bustle and tinsel and politics that typically clutter the holiday season.

Along the way, I got interested in the history of Christmas and discovered that the standard story of how Christians stole the date from the pagans is simply a lie. Christmas is not a pagan holiday, though some of the crazy ways we celebrate Jesus’ birth do have pagan roots.

One of the important things we always need to keep in mind is a concept from United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter. He’s written a book with the totally obvious but still mind-blowing title, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday.

Actually, a certain number of people probably do celebrate their birthday on December 25. But the Christmas celebration is not about their birthday. It’s about the birthday of Jesus. The point is simple: It’s not your birthday, so why are you getting presents? Even when you help a friend celebrate a birthday, the most you get is some fun and some cake and ice cream and maybe a party favor. You give presents. You don’t receive them.

Remember the Magi who traveled so far to honor the newborn king? We’ll talk more about them at Epiphany in early January. Theologian Miroslav Volf notes that the Magi give baby Jesus gifts that are fit for a king – gold and frankincense and myrrh. One thing they do not do, he says. “They do not huddle together around a warm fire and give gifts to each other…” But isn’t that exactly what we do every year at Christmas?

Nobody is saying we shouldn’t give any gifts to one another. We are saying that we ought to be more careful about what we do give and to whom. As much as I love my grandson Theo, I know there’s a limit to the number of toys he should get at Christmas. Maybe if Linda and I gave him one less toy, we could give a toy to a child who might not get anything otherwise.

That’s the essence of the Advent Conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy of love. It’s based on four powerful and countercultural concepts:

1. Worship fully, because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus. Keep your focus on Jesus, despite the many distractions of the season.

2. Spend less, to free your resources for things that truly matter. Give one less material gift to those in your inner circle whom you especially love.

3. Give more of your presence, your time, your heart, your self, to those people closest to you.

4. Love all – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized. Love them in ways that make a difference in their lives. Take the money that you would have spent on that material gift for someone close to you and give it away so that the lives of others will be brightened.

That’s the conspiracy. That’s all there is to it. Soon, I’ll introduce you to a special way of living out the Advent Conspiracy. I call it the Advent Challenge.

First, though, let’s return to that pivotal Advent Conspiracy theme, worship fully. It is especially appropriate for this first Sunday in Advent, when our overall theme is hope. The birth of Jesus fulfills the hope of generations of the people of Israel.

Our reading from Isaiah this morning announces God’s future reign over all the earth. Reigning on earth as in heaven has been one of God’s goals from the first days of creation. In Jesus, that goal comes closer to becoming a reality. But this event was eagerly anticipated for hundreds of years beforehand.

Shockingly enough, not one but two prophets claim the words of the prophecy that we read earlier. Both Isaiah and Micah proclaim the same future reality, using the same words.

They both lived about the same time, 800 years before the birth of Jesus. It’s possible that one borrowed from the other. But it’s more likely that both borrowed from an earlier source. It’s more likely that they are both citing an ancient dream that has already been put into powerful words. God put this idea in the minds of Israel’s sages a long time ago, and both Isaiah and Micah repeat it to keep the idea alive.

One day, the prophets say, the peoples of the world will stream to Jerusalem to hear God’s teaching. Instruction will pour out from Mount Zion. The word of the Lord will be heard from Jerusalem. All the nations will learn to walk in God’s pathways.

God will judge between the nations and settle their disputes. Then the nations will beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will no longer take up the sword against nation. They will no longer learn how to make war.

O Lord, the prophets say, make it so!

Preparing for this message last week, I came across a striking comment on this passage. The author said that it’s really not hard to make swords and spears into plows and pruning tools. Any blacksmith could do it.

Think about that. Any blacksmith could do it. But would any blacksmith do it? Who will join God’s conspiracy to overthrow the evil lords of this world and reign on earth as powerfully as God already reigns in heaven? Who will do this by destroying implements of hate and making implements of peace?

I want to give you an opportunity to do your part in this conspiracy of love. You can be one of the blacksmiths who contribute to world peace, one sword and one spear at a time.

I call it this Advent Challenge. It’s a simple thing with three parts.

1. Do something to brighten someone’s day.

2. Leave a card that tells why you did it.

3. Do it again.

As you receive Holy Communion this morning, you’ll have an opportunity to take as many cards as you think you might need for use in Advent and in the Christmas season beyond.

Last week, you may recall, I said that receiving communion is one of the ways you can declare allegiance to King Jesus. In a moment I’ll invite you forward to do just that, and to receive Advent Challenge cards that you can use to spread the love of God and the hope of Jesus to others in this season that leads us toward Christmas.

A baby King is coming into the world to set things right. The forces of evil are gathering to stop him. Won’t you join a conspiracy of love to bring the baby to his rightful throne?

“Worship fully” is a message preached Dec. 1, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood.