Spotlight on Advent

Nancy Nagel didn’t put up any Christmas decorations at her house in Washington this year. Her storage boxes filled with holiday items have remained untouched.

She didn’t send out any Christmas cards either, and she’s limiting her gift-giving to immediate family.

All of that may sound unusual, even “Scrooge-like,” but Nagel said she’s finding a special peacefulness in the simplicity of her approach to Christmas this year. And she isn’t alone.

Others at her church, Peace Lutheran in Washington, have joined in, along with people of varying faiths all over the world.

They call it the Advent Conspiracy.

Started in 2006 by a group of pastors who wanted to make Christmas a revolutionary event by encouraging their faith communities to “worship fully, spend less, give more and love all,” Advent Conspiracy, at its heart, is the idea that it’s OK to let go of expectations about what we should do at Christmas, explained Peace Lutheran Pastor Aimee Appell, who introduced the project to her congregation earlier this year.

“It’s a way out of the consumer craziness culture,” she said, “and not just at Christmastime . . . It’s permission to do things differently.

“We want to encourage people to find their own way to celebrate Advent and Christmas and not put another set of rules on them.”

That’s exactly what Nagel was needing this year.

“This fall, I’ve been spending a lot of time caring for my elderly mother who had hip surgery with a long recovery,” she said. “She lives in central Missouri, and I’ve been going there two to three times a week, so my time has been very limited. That’s why I decided not to try to do all of the things I have done in the past.”

In lieu of buying gifts for her siblings, Nagel is telling them her gift has been caring for their mother, and she’s using the money she would have spent on their gifts to make a donation to Lutheran World Relief to install a well in a developing country where clean water is hard to come by.

That’s part of a goal Peace Lutheran members have set for themselves as part of the Advent Conspiracy. They are each buying one less gift this year and donating that money toward installing a well.

The church has been holding Wednesday night Advent services and taking up a special collection for the well. Pastor Aimee also has been sending out an Advent devotional each day by email to members who signed up.

“It’s a reminder every day to think about, pray about or reflect on the season,” said Pastor Aimee, noting by writing the devotional, she has experienced Advent in a new way herself.

Arlys Hopkins, another Peace Lutheran member, said even before Pastor Aimee introduced her to Advent Conspiracy, she and her husband, John, had been giving their grandchildren (ages 10 to 16) “alternative” gifts.

One year it was a well. This year it will be pigs sent in their names to hungry families in different parts of the world.

This kind of gift has more meaning and a better message than giving gift cards, said Hopkins, noting that was often what she was encouraged to buy the “grands,” as she calls her grandchildren.

But that took all the joy out of giving for her and, even though they may not have realized it, the joy of receiving for the “grands.”

“There is a special joy that comes from receiving a gift you weren’t expecting,” Hopkins commented.

“We’ve taken that joy away from our children and grandchildren by just giving them money or gift cards.”

There were other implications, too, said Hopkins.

“I just didn’t like how we were making little consumers out of them,” she remarked.

The year she “gave” her grands the well, she told them every time they turned on the faucet at home to wash their hands, take a shower, clean the dishes . . . , to think about how that well helped provide clean water to families who otherwise wouldn’t have it. Trying to imagine what their lives would be like without running water whenever they wanted it helped them appreciate how meaningful the gift was, said Hopkins.

Mike Smith, another Peace member, said for him the Advent Conspiracy is helping him to better focus on the goodness associated with Christmas. In years past he struggled with that.

“I’ve always tended to react negatively to the commercialization and the excess consumption associated with Christmas,” he said. “I’ve always been called a bit of a ‘Scrooge.’ ”

This year Smith said he’s not letting all of that get to him. He’s letting go of the frustration and focusing instead on family and his own spirituality.

“I’m spending more time in prayer and meditation,” said Smith. “Accepting things the way they are instead of letting them get me frustrated.

“It’s given me a new perspective.”

Smith said his fellow members at Peace are reacting very positively to the Advent Conspiracy project.

‘Relational’ Gifts

Pastor Aimee stressed that the idea of giving one less gift shouldn’t be sad.

She isn’t suggesting foregoing toys to young children, and she doesn’t want people not to buy something they really want to give to someone.

“There is a joy and love in finding just the right gift for someone,” she acknowledged, “in taking the time to pick that just right gift for someone and then seeing their eyes when they open it.

“I bounce in my seat as I wait for people to open gifts.”

But there are other ways to give too, she said, and very often those are more meaningful, both for the giver and the receiver. The Advent Conspiracy project encourages “relational” gifts, like the gift of spending time together or giving something you make yourself.

“Giving relationally is how God gives to us,” said Pastor Aimee. “God gave us all of these gifts and taking time to spend with each other or giving of yourself in some way is a wonderful gift.

“Even if you’re not a person of faith, these are things you can do.”

She likes to knit, so some of her gifts this year will be things she made, catering to the interests of the recipient. She also is giving her daughter, who loves the zoo, the gift of being a “Zoo Parent” to one of the animals.

“This will give me a good excuse to take her to the zoo, and that gives us time together,” Pastor Aimee said.

“These are the kind of gifts that will pay dividends that you don’t realize now,” she said. “That memory is there.

“And by giving my children things I’ve made, that places a value to them on the things they have made for me.

“It’s primal, in a way. There’s something about wanting to give of yourself to others,” said Pastor Aimee. “We learn to devalue that as money becomes a central focus, but this opens a different space for giving and receiving.”

More Gift Ideas

The Advent Conspiracy project suggested other “relational” gifts that people can give:

•Create a fun certificate stating the gift of your time you want to give, maybe helping with a project around the house or helping with errands.

Then when you fulfill that gift, you do the work without grousing or complaining about it.

•Bring coffee, tea or lunch and flowers when you visit someone, be intentional about really connecting while you’re together.

•Make up a movie night gift that includes popcorn, root beer and a favorite DVD movie.

•Host a Monday Night Football and make homemade pizzas.

•Wrap two copies of a used classic book to read with a friend.

•Make hot chocolate together and then bundle up to take a walk looking at Christmas lights.

•Give “coupons” for things like babysitting, yard work, or to spend the day together doing something that person is passionate about or never makes time to do.

•Make a scrapbook of photos of the time you spent with that person all year or maybe photos of the grandchildren as a gift for the grandparent.

•“Home publish” a story written and illustrated by your children.

“Ask yourself, ‘What can I do?’ ‘What do they like to do?’ ” the Advent Conspiracy project suggests.

When creating these gifts, however, be careful, warns Pastor Aimee. Sometimes they can end up being more expensive than if you would have bought something specific. So if saving money is another of your objectives, plan accordingly.

At the same time, don’t feel guilty if you want to spend money, she said.

The main purpose of Advent Conspiracy is to eliminate stress and pressure so that people can appreciate the season more, said Pastor Aimee.

For more on the Advent Conspiracy, people can visit www.adventconspiracy.org. For more ideas on “alternative” gifts, read the Focus on the Family column on Page 2B.