I’m a pastor. Week after week as I’m putting together my bulletin, especially during Advent, I find that the prayers of confession that I select end up including something about “putting things ahead of the needs of our neighbors.” And in this I recognize consumerism as an evil. I see the kind of money that is spent in this country around this time of year on Christmas presents – estimated to be around $830 Billion (with a B!) – and I cringe. Think about what could be done with that kind of money – clean and safe water that could be provided to the millions who don’t currently have access to it, food for the hungry, heat for the cold, shelter for the homeless. If nothing else, you could pretty much give the two and half billion people living on less than $2 a day another dollar every day all year long! Trying to wrap my head around it all makes me ill.
The other day I found myself in a store looking around; feeling like I needed to find something for a colleague of mine, and I hated it. Everything I looked at began to feel like shopping for the sake of shopping. And by and large, this is how I’m starting to feel about the whole tradition of gift giving at Christmas. And yet I’m not entirely sure what to do about it. In a lot of ways I feel trapped by it.
I have three kids. When the kids were younger I was probably not so theologically engaged and so didn’t care so much. Or maybe it’s just that when you’re a new parent you have that deep-seated desire to spoil that wide-eyed little bundle of joy rotten. What ever the case was, somehow, we started a tradition of giving a stocking stuffed full, some clothes, a book, and a “big” gift – and without fail that has ended up including a small handful (or maybe even large handful) of other gifts. And now as I think about scaling back, I picture disappointment with the kids. I talked about doing a “handmade” Christmas with my wife and she fears similar disappointment.
These past few years, on Christmas day, as we have slogged through the opening, and it drags on and on, I have felt the weight of it. There is this overwhelming sense that I’ve just bought into this materialistic myth. I’m afraid that I’m giving my kids that message too – that somehow in the passing back and forth of all this crap, that it will bring happiness. And yet, this year is starting to look like it will be a replay of Christmases past. Last year I began donating to a charity in each of the kids name and giving them a card that tells them that, but that feels like it just something tacked on, like it really does nothing to get to the root of the problem.
Writing this, I don’t know if it is simply confession. I feel that in many ways –this consumerism is a sin. Or perhaps it is a warning. If you are starting out with a new family, be wary of what habits and traditions you are forming; they can be hard to break. Whatever the case, I see that I am wrapped up in something very symptomatic of the culture. And as is so often the case Christ calls us, is calling me, to be counter-cultural. Now, if I can only figure out what that looks like for my family…