Whose Birthday? #22

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Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? #22

Archives Index | Whose Birthday? Index | Many More Interesting Christmas Articles

Daily Calendar Index

An Advent and Christmas Resource for Families, Individuals and Churches

If you want a daily Advent/Christmas guide/calendar, choose from 20 at Simpleliving.org >> Archives >> Advent/Christmas Calendars (2001 has the same cycle (A) and start date - Dec. 2nd). Some are lectionary-based, some are thematic. Copy your choice on recycled paper as a bulletin insert, in your own Advent-Christmas booklet or as a series in your weekly service bulletin.

Table of Contents

Whose Birthday? How-To


Hope for the New Decade


  • Editor's Foreword


  • Is Christmas Christian?
    Richard Rohr asks about getting beyond the externals of the Christmas consumer culture to that which truly transforms us and draws us to God.
  • Woodstock in the Stable
    Sarah Berlin reflects on seeking the sacred contained in the popular Christmas.
  • Why Did God Bother Creating Humans?
    Adrian Borian's Christmas sermon explores how the helplessness of God incarnate, born in a stable, invites you to serve your neighbor and creation.
  • Traveling Lightly
    Kathy Hendricks shares insights from her year long road trip with her husband on simplifying life and celebrating at Christmas.
  • Yoga and Simplicity
    Robyn Lambert shares how her decision to become a yoga instructor has taught her lessons in living intentionally and being stretched spiritually.
  • 10 Tips for a Simpler, More Meaningful Christmas
  • Reflections for the Sundays of Advent
    Written in 1988 for Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? these reflections by old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann are as powerful and prophetic today as when they were written, perhaps more so!
  • Advent Calendar A sustainable change calendar of hope for Advent and the 12 Days of Christmas.


  • The Best Gifts at Christmas
    Tony Campolo relates how the best gifts should represent investments of time and personal creativity that can be used to help those Jesus called the least of these.
  • Summit Harmony
    Sandy Olson's Advent children's program includes activities and music to help everyone prepare for Jesus.
  • Christmas All Year Long
    Kent Ira Groff explains how his family's connection with friends throughout the world gives them the opportunity to share in the meaning and message of Christmas all year long.
  • A Family Giving Tree
    Meg Cox uses the concept from Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree to create a family ritual of giving in meaningful ways that reflect the spirit of Christmas.

    Editor's Forward

    Marcus Borg is fond of saying, ''Tell me your image of God and I will tell you your politics. ''What he is getting at, I believe, is that if one's image of God is patriarchal and reflects dominance and distance from humankind, then one's politics will be very similar, emphasizing power over and separation from others. If one's image of God is of a loving gracious Creator, reflecting divine connection with all of creation, then one's politics would similarly emphasize unity, cooperation and relationship with others.

    The same kind of analogies can be made about one's image of God and one's philosophy of creation care, or one's opinion about consumption and voluntary simplicity. A judging, distant image of God, who is above creation, projects a very different viewpoint about care of the Earth and living simply than the image of God is in all -- all is in God (Martin Luther).

    Likewise, a Santa Claus image of God who rewards material goodies to the nice in North American culture is quite different from an incarnate God born in Bethlehem, who proclaims, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

    There is a clear connection between our image of God and how we understand our role in caring for creation, challenging consumerism and living simply. The authors featured in this Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? explore different aspects of that connection and share practical ways of sharing and celebrating God with us.

    This past year Alternatives for Simple Living turned 35 years young. We want to share from the wealth of resource material that Alternatives produced in its first 35 years, so we are planning an anthology to be published this fall entitled Celebrating 35 Years of Alternatives. But we are giving you a foretaste of the feast to come in this year's Whose Birthday? by including Advent reflections first published in the 1988 edition by Alternatives' Honorary Board Member, Walter Brueggemann.

    Advent and Christmas blessings,

    Rev. Michael A. Mortvedt, Editor, former Co-Director of Alternatives for Simple Living
    It is not the Lord of Israel or his Son that we love nearly as much as we do our limitless growth, our right to empire, our actual obligation to consume and our sense of entitlement to this clearly limited planet.

    Is Christmas Christian?

    By Richard Rohr Fr Richard Rohr. O.F.M.

    As a Franciscan priest, I think I have the right to ask this question. We from the Catholic tradition too easily presume that because the title is right, the train following it is on the right track. We are not often open to asking if the train has anything to do with the direction of the original engine -- in this case, the birth and message of Jesus of Nazareth.

    We all know that the date of December 25 is artificial and was a takeover from the third century Roman feast of the Rebirth of the Sun, normally celebrated as soon as they could observe the same, sometime after the winter solstice. Right away, that tells us that during the first few centuries of the Common Era people had no interest in knowing when Jesus was born, much less celebrating his birth. That came with calendars and the demarcating of precise time.

    Frankly, we must confess that it was likely our founder, St. Francis (1182 1226), who began to make Christmas the sentimental celebration that it has become, although his intention was never at all in the direction it has taken. He was the great lover of poverty and simplicity, and would he aghast at the consumer and group defining feast that Christmas has become. He merely replicated the drama of the stable with live animals and music.

    For Francis and the early incarnation was already redemption, and the feast of Christmas said that God was saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of his Son in our midst. If that was true, then all questions of inherent dignity, worthiness and belovedness were resolved once and forever – and for everything that was human, material, physical and in the whole creation. That’s why Francis liked animals and nature, and praised the sun, moon and stars, like some new Ager from California. It was all good and chosen and beautiful if God came among us as Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14).

    But groups need and create their identity symbols, and the celebration of Christmas became the big one for Christian Europe, just as Jewish people need Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Muslims need Ramadan and pilgrimage. The trouble is that the meaning became group defining instead of life transforming. As we say today, it got off message! It was no longer God's choice of the whole but God’s choice of us! (In fairness, most religions make the same mistake at lower levels of transformation.)

    At those lower levels of civil religion or any religion as a belonging system, the original meaning is always lost, and often even morphs into the opposite. Strange and sad, isn't it? In this case, the self emptying of God into humble and poor humanity (Philippians 2:7) became an excuse for us to fill, consume, dominate, use and spend at staggering levels for ourselves. In fact, the days leading up to December 25 are the economic engine around which the entire business economy measures itself in Christian-influenced countries. One might think that the fasting of Ramadan and Yom Kippur might have been a much clearer act of solidarity with the actual mystery celebrated.

    Well. this year we might be forced under duress to celebrate the feast of Jesus' humble birth with honesty! Our economic meltdown is showing for all to see what our real gods have been. It is not the Lord of Israel or his Son that we love nearly as much as we do our limitless growth, our right to empire, our actual obligation to consume and our sense of entitlement to this clearly limited planet.

    In Christian circles, when I call these false gods into question, I am invariably criticized on other grounds of heresy and church protocols, almost so we do not have to look at what our real loyalties have been and are. Let's keep talking about biblical interpretation or papal infallibility so we never have to look at our lifestyle. For far too many of us, our final loyalties have been to the system of America, to the free market, to the protecting of the top and not the bottom where Jesus was and to what Pope John Paul II called rigid capitalism. He said in several of his encyclical letters that capitalism had to be critiqued and regulated just as much as socialist communism (for example, Loborem Exercens). Strange that most Western Catholics never quoted him on that theme!

    So, come, let us celebrate the feast anew! May we who have consumed the mystery of Jesus now consume his whole meal, and may it free us from needing to consume so much of everything else. If you really have the One, you should not need more and more of the other. Maybe our humble Jesus is stealing our idols from us, and inviting us back into his Bethlehem stable.

    Reprinted from TIKKUN: A Bimonthly Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture and Society.

    Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province. He founded the New Jersalem Community in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1971 and the Center for Action and Contemplation in, Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1986, where he currently serves as Founding Director. He now lives in a hermitage behind his Franciscan community and divides his time between local work and preaching and teaching on every continent.

    An internationally known speaker, Richard considers the proclamation of the Gospel to be his primary call. Themes that he addresses in the service of the Gospel include scripture as liberation, the integration of action and community building peace and justice issues, male spirituality, the Enneagram and eco-spirituality.

    Some of his best-known books include
    Everything Belongs Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, Adams Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, Hope Against the Darkness, and The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. Things Hidden: Sculpture as Spirituality, was published in November, 2007.
    Snoopy and Woodstock, Winnie the Pooh, Santa Claus and Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and various other cartoon characters were paying homage to the newborn King.

    Woodstock in the Stable

    Sara Berlin

    During Advent a couple of years ago I was called out late one evening to see a parishioner in the hospital. As I approached the front entrance I was pleased to see a beautiful creche display. There was the Holy Family: Mary looking adoringly at the baby Jesus, Joseph and the farm animals huddled closely together. Of course there were the shepherds and wise men kneeling in rapt adoration. Outside of this familiar inner circle there were a few other characters added to the scene that are not mentioned in Luke's account. Snoopy and Woodstock, Winnie the Pooh, Santa Claus and Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and various other cartoon characters were paying homage to the newborn King.

    Now I like all of those characters, but it shows you just how we've mixed up the Gospel story with other cultural icons has no doubt prompted people don pins that proclaim, Jesus is the reason for the season and to beg the question, Whose birthday is it, anyway? Yes, we want people to remember that it is about Jesus. But we certainly do not want Jesus to represent the shopping and commercial mania. So, I for one am happy for Santa Claus to be the secular representative for Christmas.

    Can you imagine the horror of using Jesus and the Holy Family as department store gimmicks -- women dressed up like Mary at the perfume counter, men dressed as Joseph selling power tools in the hardware department? And Jesus in the toy department with a big sign WWJB? what would Jesus buy?

    I am just as happy for elves and reindeer and Santa to take over as the commercial characters. At least that way we are able to maintain the dignity and purity of our sacred story.

    We have the greatest message, a sacred gift from God to convey to the world, and it often falls upon apathetic and deaf ears.

    It may be beyond our control to change mosr of the hectic frenzy and secular images that eclipse the image of the Christchild. But over the next few weeks we pay attention to what is underneath it all and name it for what it really is.

    One of the rich themes of Advent is the contrast between light and darkness. In Jesus Christ the light is coming and the darkness will disappear. People long for light, and they feel a profound tension between disappointment and hope.

    Christmas for many people is a season of tension, contrasts and conflicting expectations. It is a time of having too much, yet not enough. Too much to do, too much food, too much shopping and perhaps too many unfulfilled dreams of what picture perfect Christmas ought to be. And there is not enough -- not enough time or enough money, not enough meaning and not enough quiet time for prayer and spiritual preparation.

    Recognize the contrast and begin to claim meaning in the secular images. All of the lights that we see in our cities are a sign of the longing for the light of Christ to be revealed and darkness dispelled. Activities such as gift giving and connecting with relatives and friends we write to only once a year pull us out of our daily routines and draw us into a sense of community and shared history. Opening our wallets and giving to the bell ringers and the other charities reveals God hope for the poor. The variety of versions of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol and its theme of the changed heart of the old, cold Scrooge tells us of our innate desire for redemption and justice and new beginnings.

    More and more, our culture fails to connect the themes of the holidays with the coming of Jesus. The holidays has become a generic term, replacing the sacred story of salvation with secular traditions. But underneath there lies an unnamed yearning. We know the yearning: we know the name. We recognize the season is a very real experience of our coming to God and God coming to us in Jesus.

    During what remains of the season let God intrude upon everything you do. Play a sort of spiritual game as you bake cookies or write Christmas cards or purchase gifts and decorate your home. Look underneath the activities. Name the spiritual yearnings they represent, and bless them in the name of the Christ child. We do not need to be threatened or angry at the commercialization of Christmas. There's a deep longing in the world for hope and peace, to live in a time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. On some level, even non Christians connect the theme of peace with the birth of jesus. That is a good thing. This is something we believers need to capitalize upon, We can help the world name the longing - it is Jesus who reveals God's liberation, salvation and peace.

    So, as you encounter the secular side of Christmas, take note. Do you see a desire for family, for generosity, for beauty, for fun, joy, peace, love, harmony, provision for the poor, reconciliation and more? Are not all of these things from God? Rejoice that Jesus Christ has managed to infuse into the most imaginative icons elements of the kingdom of God. The 2,000 year old story of love and peace and grace of Godstill remains intact.

    The Reverend Sarah Butler Berlin is an Episcopal priest, a spiritual director and a retreat leader. She was a Canon Rector at St. John Cathedral, Denver, Colorado, for over 11 years training and supervising Caring Ministers. She has authored Caring Ministry: A Centemplative Approach to Pastoral Care Ministry.
    We were part of God's plan from the very beginning.

    Why Did God Bother Creating Humans?

    Adrian Borian

    I am starting to get to that age where all my friends are having kids. And for whatever reason, when someone has a baby, they always think you want to hold the baby. I really do not. It is the holding of the baby that is the terrifying part for me.

    Support the head, don't let that part slip, make sure you are not pinching its arms and definitely don't drop it. Because if you dropped the baby, you would always be that friend who dropped little Anna, and who knows what would happen to the baby. . . scary.

    No newborn in the animal kingdom is more defenseless than the human baby. Some animals are born able to walk, humans have to learn to use their necks. Human babies can't even smile, one of the most common of human expressions, and if they do smile it is usually just gas. Babies are too defenseless for my liking, and they are probably the reason why the Christmas story seems so absurd.

    How can God be a baby? God can create everything out of nothing, but God can't change his own diapers. God can make the mountains tremble and send floods throughout the entire world, but God can't walk on his own two legs? And God is somehow the blank slate that babies are, that will learn whatever language, whatever culture they are raised in? This is our God?

    The Gospel stories bring the strangeness of this baby God front and center. According to Luke 2:21 40, God as a baby, as Jesus, needed human help.

    According to Luke three rituals were to be done within the first month or so of a baby's life. The first one I'm willing to bet Jesus didn't perform on his own. There is no way God did his own circumcision. I have heard some miraculous baby stories, but that's a little too much for me to believe. God needed someone's help on the eighth day of his life.

    Next. Jesus was a firstborn, which meant he was sacred to God and he was supposed to be sacrificed. Obviously the people of Israel weren't regularly giving all their heirs over to the temple, so there was a common tradition called Redemption of the Firstborns, where for five shekels parents could buy their sons back from God. Mary and Joseph had to give this money to the temple priests for God's sake.

    And lastly, according to Luke, Jesus had to partake in the purification after childbirth. Now this last part added by Luke is not exactly something Jesus would have done. Mary, his mother had to be made clean through the sacrifice of a lamb and a pigeon (or for someone who was poor, they could use two pigeons, as Mary did). Mary had to be made clean, not Jesus. The babies weren't unclean: it was the mothers who were. l like to think Luke made this error on purpose. I like to think that Luke wanted to give yet one more sign as to how much God needed our help. I like to think Luke did this because generally in our everyday lives we think God doesn't need us.

    When we pray for something, we usually pray for God to do it. We don't always pray that we would be able to do it with the help of Gof or that God would give us the strength to do it. We so want God to get us magically out of the hard times. God has become the great wish granter: throw a coin in the fountain of prayer and everything will be all right.

    Sometimes, though, we notice that our prayers don't seem to be answered. And even worse than that we notice how much pain and suffering exists in the world. Certainly many of us have prayed for all that to end. We start to wonder where God is in all of this suffering. Sometimes we might begin to question whether God really cares. But we keep praying. We keep asking God to make everything right.

    But then Luke reminds us: God needs our help. This is the absurd part of the Christian story. The creator of everything, the be all and end all, the definitive I AM, needs you, needs us - not when we have spare time or when we feel like it, we must give all of ourselves to make this world whole.

    The real question of all of this comes to me as Why did God bother creating humans? I think too many times we imagine God's reason as some sort of celestial boredom. God was up in heaven, reclining back with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and he had played one too many games of Connect Four. So, God thought... why not? And then there was Adam.

    Or sometimes we say God created everything out of some vague love. God is a God of love, so of course God would create life. God wanted to share the love.

    But this doesn't really give us any more answers. It just causes more questions.

    I believe God created humanity because God needed to create humanity. God needed us. We were part of God's plan from the very beginning.

    There is a belief that within each person there is a part of God that exists nowhere else, that without each and every one of us, creation would be incomplete. God who is infinite made every part of God's self expand infinitely by putting God's self into humans. Every being that has ever lived is a new piece of God, and God expects you, us, to make use of this part of God within ourselves, that through us, as absurd as this sounds. God is made more holy, more loving, more complete.

    It is easy to create a removed God, an all powerful God that grants wishes and always remains the same. This kind of God is referred to all the time because, even though we don't really understand what it means to be all powerful and always the same, this is at least a comfortable box into which we can put God.

    But the God of Christianity, the God born on Christmas Day, proves to be more than that. Our God is one that became a baby who needed to be cared for, a child who struggled as we struggle and a man who died ever so painfully. He ate, he drank and he loved. Jesus grew and changed, as every Gospel reminds us. And God continues to grow and change within us. It may seem absurd, but somehow this strange Christmas tale happens to be one that must change how we think, act and live. God needed humans on Christmas Day, and God still needs us now.

    Adrian Bonaro. M.Div. is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California.

    Traveling Lightly

    Kathy Hendricks

    In all of the depictions of Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem, it's hard to find one in which they are laden with luggage. Even though we know little about the historical accuracy of such a journey, the symbolism created in Luke's Gospel is compelling. The evangelist paints the scene of Jesus' impending birth in simple strokes and peaceful hues.

    It is one that means all the more to me after completing a year long sojourn across the country with my husband Ron. Dedicated to traveling lightly, we sold our house and sorted through everything we owned. We dispersed or discarded half of our belongings, placed the rest in storage, and packed up our home on wheels. From there we proceeded to take up residence in whatever wayside inns we found along the way.

    The journey culminated in Florida, where our two children joined us for Christmas. We had none of the usual holiday accoutrements -- no tree or stockings, no presents or traditional meals. What we did have was time to converse, to rest and to meander along a nearby beach. We didn't need anything more.

    Christmas in Florida was all the more enjoyable because it came at the end of our trip. By then, we had learned some of the secrets of traveling lightly. Surrendering our stuff was just the first step. Being without a home for a year sometimes left us adrift, but it also opened us up to new people, places and experiences. We acquired a knack for resiliency when our plans didn't materialize as expected. Living in such close proximity to each other could have had a disastrous effect on our marriage, but instead we unearthed a light-heartedness that enabled us to laugh easily and often.

    Even though there is a lot to militate against it, the days and weeks before Chrsitmas are an opportune time to travel lightly. When we relinquish the quest for the perfect Christmas, with all the trimming and trappings, Advent settles into the season it's meant to be -- one of great promise and hopeful anticipation over the incarnational wonder of Chrismtas. Traveling lightly makes us more attentive to the God-within-us moments folded into each day. It also enables us to listen anew to the ancient tale of a family's journey and a baby's birth in the simplest of places. What we may discover is that we have all we need to continue our journey, wherever it takes us, with light and hopeful hearts.

    Kathy Hendricks is a spiritual director who offers talks and retreats across the country and over seas on topics of family, everyday spirituality and women's issues. She authored the book A Parent's Guide to Prayer and her articles have appeared in numerous magazines. Kathy is married and the mother of two adult children and a daughter who died in infancy.

    Yoga and Simplicity

    Robyn Lambert

    Our spiritual journey is filled with bends, hills and smooth straight paths. Letting go of a destination allows our faith to grow and permits us to trust in the guidance and wisdom we experience along these various paths.

    Yoga is a lifelong practice that reflects on the connection of mind, body and spirit. Yoga reminds us that the present moment is to be honored and cherished. The present moment does not leave out the past or the future, but instead, in the present, we reflect on the imprints of our past and prepare plans for our future. The present moment allows us fully to experience our life here and now, with all we have learned and experienced, and all that is waiting for us.

    Several years ago my spiritual journey was showing me that a different purpose was waiting for me regarding my work in this life. Much of my time was taken up with a corporate career that boasted financial success and a predetermined path. Yet my heart yearned for something different.

    Five years ago, I left my corporate life and became a full time yoga instructor. As I began planning this transition, the right circumstances and individuals entered my path and helped me move into this new work. I also met resistance from people along the way who were trying to understand how I could give up what I was doing and pursue this unknown, risky adventure.

    To embody this new path fully, many other areas of my life were also altered. I sold my house, which had more rooms than I ever used, and downsized to a small apartment. I bought a much more practical car, which has helped me to conserve gas. I gave up many of my material possessions and found I could live with so much less and was actually happier for it. I also had to diligently balance my checkbook, which was something I never paid attention to when I was working my corporate job. I put together a workable budget and had a solid understanding of where my money was being spent and why. So although my life went through changes, they have all had their purposes and have brought a welcomed simplification to my life.

    My yoga practice has connected me with so many wonderful and dynamic individuals. It has opened my life in many needed ways. And now, the ability yoga has given me to truly be present and to meditate about my journey is bringing clarity to what may be the next steps for me to take in my life.

    I encourage you to find the tranquility and balance that can be offered through a yoga practice. Let yoga be a place a mind set or a path to shed light on your own spiritual journey.

    Lambert is a certified yoga instructor in Fort Collins, Colorado, and a prospective student at Iliff Seminary in Denver.

    The Best Gifts at Christmas

    Tony Campolo

    There was consternation in the voice of a television anchorman this past Christmas when he announced that the average Christmas spending per family had dropped dramatically. Instead of the $750 that was spent by the typical North American family in 2007, spending was down to $450 per family because of the recession. Given the desire of the custodians of the economy to get North Americans buying again at an exceedingly high level, I understand the upset of the man on television,

    On the other hand, we must be aware that for years preachers have been telling their congregations that there is something obscene about our spending patterns at Christmas time. They have long argued that yielding to the seductions of advertisers and buying huge amounts of consumer goods that we really don't need is not a good way to honor Christ. I am not suggesting that we give up gift giving during the Christmas season because, in a sense, it is a way of acknowledging that Christmas is about giving, especially when we consider that it was on that first Christmas that God gave us His Son.

    What I am suggesting is that our gifts should represent investments of time and personal creativity.

    One Christmas my grandson, who was then 10 years old, memorized a very difficult passage of scripture, and on Christmas morning recited those verses and made that recitation a gift to me.

    Last Christmas, one of my granddaughters took small pieces of colored paper and wrote on them precious memories that she had about my wife and me during her years of coming of age. These little pieces of paper were curled up and put in a glass jar that was artistically labeled 'Treasured Memories.' Each morning, my wife and I take out one of these little notes and read it. It is a happy way to start the day,

    Two of my other granddaughters carefully painted pictures and had them framed so we could hang them in our home. Needless to say, these paintings bring a smile to my face whenever I see them.

    With all our family members, the money that is saved is usually set aside for some missionary program, such as buying farm animals for families in Third World countries or giving financial support to one of the soup kitchens in our city,

    There are many ways of giving financial help to those whom Jesus called the least of these and in doing so we know that whatever do for them, we are doing for Him.

    Dr. Tony Casmpolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in suburban Philadephia; a media commentator on religious, social and political matters; author of a dozen books and numerous videos including Curing Affluenza.

    Dr. Campolo has served on Alternatives Honorary Board since its beginning. He is the founder and president of Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) which helps thousands of children, especially in the non-industrial world, to receive an education.

    Summit Harmony

    Sandy Olson

    Simplifying our Advent and Christmas celebrations was a family decision. Even after living more simply last year and announcing that what Michael and I wanted most was simply for the family to gather for Christmas dinner, even then there were a few gifts. Our children are so used to giving gifts that the joy was in receiving what they wanted to give. Though we did not buy gifts to give, I found myself sharing family memories and treasures that I knew each one would enjoy.

    I did something similar with the music students and friends who usually exchange gifts with me. Instead of giving the usual purchased trinkets, we had fun making and eating Christmas cookies and hearing stories. I gave and received much more in sharing the time together with my students and friends.

    After school on Mondays children come to the Firehouse for a children's program I call Summit Harmony. We enjoy activities and music for about an hour. Last year, during Advent, we each made a manger scene, piece by piece. We talked about the need for shelter and safety as we made a stable and manger, and the need for clothes and food as we glued fabric and head coverings on the wooden figures of Mary and Joseph. At last we covered Jesus with a little blanket and talked about caring and kindness. Our entire Advent time was about preparing for Jesus.

    This year our Advent project will be about the rulers and kings in the Christmas story. We will decorate king masks cut from foam squares with paper and ribbon. While we work we will share a discussion about all the rulers and kings from the Christmas story, especially in the Gospel According to Luke. After completing a list of kings and rulers, each child will research one or two of the kings on the list, perhaps King David (Luke 1:27) or King Herod of Judea (Luke 1:5), or Emperor Augustus (Luke 2:11) or Quirinius the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2), or the wise men or three kings (Matthew 2:7 12), or God, my Savior (Luke 1:47), and especially the baby Jesus who is the Savior, the Messiah Lord wrapped in swaddling clothes (Luke 2:10 12). Our Advent learning this year will be about why Jesus was called King.

    Christmas All Year Long

    Kent Ira Groff

    In yesterday's mail we received a handwritten letter from Judith in the central African country of Malawi. Our own daughter met Judith there on a mission trip in 1987 when they were both 17, and somehow - through tragedies like her young husband's death - Judith continues to write Dear Mum... Over the years, others (like my wife's Pennsylvania church circle) have joined in various projects such as wiring Judith money for a crall, a shelter to keep her cow, which was given by Project Heifer. We got a photo of her and her children with the cow and the crall, this is Incarnation. Yesterday's letter arrived a month after Judith wrote it, with another need - the children's education. We shared this with our new Denver church study group last night. Will others join in helping? Perhaps.

    A month ago a pastor friend in Kenya emailed (Hesborne uses an Internet cafe in nearby Kisumu) that his younger brother had died in his 30s. This family ekes out their survival needs day-by-day - no electricity, no car. Here in the US you would send flowers or give to a memorial fund - without question. In his case we sent money for funeral expenses, and another family member joined in - without question.

    In 1999 in India we met a 20 year old son our family had sponsored since Madhu was two (through Christian Children's Fund). Madhu -- now 30 - working with computers and married to Kavitha - and when their son Tarun celebrated his first birthday, of course we sent a gift. When he sends us digital photos we forward them to our adult children, who grew up knowing Madhu was part of our family and still is.

    In such ways Christmas happens all year round - in September, March or July - creating little Nativity seasons, calling us to the holy family of God's people around the world. This is no one way street: we receive from them the joy of having an extended global family. And there are non material exchanges as well, mutual friendship and prayers expressing love and compassion.

    You may be wondering, how do you develop such contacts? These relationships happen in the U.S. as well. As blessed Mother Teresa was fond of saying, practice on your own street. Next time you take a walk, make friends with a neighbor walking his dog. That recently happened for a new neighbor I met while he was walking his dog is becoming a friend. At a conference, you meet someone who resonates with your soul; you say, Can we stay in touch?

    I receive gifts of such on the spot friendships through Facebook, email and phone. When a New Jersey email friend reads and critiques chapters of a book I'm working on, I celebrate a mini Christmas gift as surely as Tairun or Hesborne or Judith celebrate when we wire them money or exchange a prayer in an email or letter.

    Scripture: Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:10)

    Kent Ira Groff, founding mentor of Oasis Ministries in Pennsylvania, is a spiritual companion for journeyers and leaders, a retreat leader, a writer and a poet living in Denver, Colorado. For simple exercises to renew life and faith see his books What Would I Believe If I Didn't Believe Anything: A Spiritual Compass to Point You Home and Writing Tides: Finding Grace and Growth through Writing www.KentIraGroff.com

    Celebrating 35 years of the best of Alternatives for Simple Living

    A Family Giving Tree

    Meg Cox

    Amidst the backdrop of global economic crisis, it may seem insensitive to celebrate. But there are multiple reasons to celebrate this year and many fitting ways to do so.

    The season of Advent and Christmas celebrates the rebirth of hope. One Way to embody that hope is to make a renewed commitment to help create a brighter future. Why not create a new family ritual that helps you embrace the role of ambassadors of hope, one that celebrates your roles as givers and helpers, and encourages you to do more than ever?

    Here's one idea: create a Giving Tree for your family. You are probably familiar with the Shel Silverstein book of that name, about all the ways in which a single tree helps one human being throughout his life, providing shade, apples and so forth. But this is more like a special Christmas tree - one that isn't hung with ornaments but with mementos of all the different ways a family finds to give to others in need during the holiday season.

    You can make a paper Giving Tree and tape it to a wall or door. Or you might get one of those small, live evergreens in a pot (which you could plant in your garden next spring).

  • Cut red and white paper hearts from construction paper and use pretty holiday ribbons to tie them to branches of the tree. Have a bowl of pre cut hearts ready to put on the tree.

  • Add a heart every time you put some coins in a Salvation Army Christmas pot, or when you buy a book or a toy for a needy child in your community. Add a heart when you collect canned goods for your church or town hall to help ensure a needy family gets to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Add a heart after your choir sings carols at a nursing home or hospital. Add a heart when you volunteer at the local animal rescue shelter.

  • Let the Giving Tree provoke family discussions about who else needs help in your town and throughout the world, and how you might respond right now. Maybe the kids would like to send a card to a soldier who won't be home for Christmas. Maybe they want to pitch in to help with a seasonal community service project at their school. Collect some money from allowances, and then vote as a family to pick the charities that receive help.

  • There are many variations on the ritual: decide whether you want to add hearts to the tree every time a family member does a good deed or add hearts once a week on Sundays after dinner.

    Like all of you, I'm looking at ways to make my family's holiday mean more and cost less this year. In that spirit, I want to share a few online resources that I find especially helpful:

    SimpleLivingWorks.org: I've always been a huge fan of Alternatives for Simple Living, which got started years ago as an effort to make Christmas less commercial. Alternatives works within a religious, Christian context and produces excellent resources such as the annual Advent guide, Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?

    Redefine Christmas.org: This welbsite encourages individual philanthropy and is a great tool for finding good charities and then getting money to them. You can send e cards to friends telling them you gave in their name, and you can create a gift registry where you tell your friends that you'd prefer they donate money to a charity rather than give you another sweater. You can zero in on causes you care about deeply, whether it's global warming, poverty and hunger, clearing landmines or encouraging budding artists.

    SimpleLivingForum.org and ChristianSimpleLiving.org

    www.newdream.org/holiday/index.php: I'm a fan of the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes simple living with an emphasis on environmentalism. They also offer good resources and recently updated their materials on holidays.

    BuyNothingChristmas.org: This Canadian Mennonite group started a Christian initiative to make the holiday less materialistic, and one result is this detaded, self explanatory website

    May your holidays be full of love and presence!

    Meg Cox is a journalist, author and expert in family traditions. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she writes for a wide range of organizations and magazines including Hallmark, Merck and Co., Family Fun, Good Housekeeping and Parents. Cox lectures frequently and writes an occasional journal on family rituals. She currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband and son.
    Copyright Creative Commons (original 2009, Alternatives for Simple Living)
    Make as many copies as you choose on a not-for-profit basis.
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