Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Looking back at Christmas

We were in a fabulous Christmas spirit. We had just heard an incredible concert by the Seattle Symphony and performers from Cirque du Soleil. The holiday concert in the Seattle Pops series is always our favorite. Afterward, we walked a few blocks to the main downtown shopping area of Seattle. The twinkling white lights sparkled in the crisp air. Regal horses drawing white “handsome cabs” decorated in green boughs and red ribbon added to the ambience. Street musicians sang and played a mixture of music and school choirs performed Christmas Carols on stage at one of the indoor malls. Children giggled with glee on the Merry-go-Round. It wasn’t cold enough to snow, but there was a crisp chill in the air that heightened our sense that this was indeed the Christmas Season. It is an multi-sensory, almost magical time we enjoy every year. We walked around the same blocks and browsed through the same stores looking at the same displays and merchandise that is available every year.

But there was something different about this annual tradition for us. This year, we both commented that the most notable difference was our lack of tension and impatience. We weren’t concerned about long lines or pushy people. We weren’t frantically trying to make last-minute decisions about one more gift to fill a stocking. You see this year, we were free from all that. We had, along with a large number of others in our congregation, decided that we were going to celebrate Christmas in a different way. Instead of excessive spending on over-priced items that would be returned or wear out shortly after purchased, we had committed to redirecting the majority of what we normally spend on Christmas gifts to purchase something that would truly make a difference in the lives of people we had never met.

Each year, the members of our church – Calvary Presbyterian Church in Enumclaw, Washington – participate in a project where people buy hand-made Christmas cards crafted by people from the church. For each card purchased at $5.00 apiece, a wool blanket is purchased by Church World Service to send to some crisis area in the world: places where hurricanes have wreaked havoc or wars have sent refugees fleeing, or earthquakes have left people homeless and cold.

This year, in addition to the Christmas card project, we decided to participate in a growing movement known as ADVENT CONSPIRACY. The originators of this movement decided a few years ago to encourage their congregations to change the way they celebrated Advent and Christmas by purchasing safe water for people in far flung places like Kenya, Central America or Asia. Over 1.2 billion people lack safe drinking water. A child dies every fifteen seconds from disease that could be prevented by the availability of uncontaminated water.

As with any new program, our staff and our Elders weren’t sure how this project would be received by our people. Would it conflict with our Christmas Card/Blanket project? Would it be asking too much of people in this period of uncertainty in the economy? Was it too “Scrooge-like” to ask people not to spend as much on Christmas presents as they normally had? With some trepidation, we forged ahead with the coordinated materials of ADVENT CONSPIRACY. Our weekly sermons followed the themes suggested by the program: Worship fully; spend less; give more; and love all. Even several of our small groups read the book and discussed what it would mean to restore the idea of sacrificial giving to Christmas. But how would we raise the money to meet our goal?

In October a group had just returned from Zambia where they had helped a community drill a bore hole for a well. But we didn’t have enough money to finish off the project with a pump and storage tank. People were already aware of the need in this poor community just to the north of Lusaka. We have sponsored community-based schools there and have sent two mission teams over the past two years. It seemed like a given. So we set that as our first priority and we committed $1,500.00 to make further headway.

Our Elders had set an initial goal of $4,000.00 for our first year doing this project and prayerfully wondered if we could do it. We adopted a second project in Kenya. Numerous organizations are doing good work in bringing water to the world but we chose Food for the Hungry. My son-in-law worked for Food for the Hungry. That seemed like a natural place to begin. He put me in touch with other staff at FH who suggested a “guttering” system in Marsibit, Kenya.

It didn’t seem very glamorous but it fit our estimated budget. For $3,200 USD we could provide a simple but effective system of rain water collection and filtering that would provide safe water for people in the community throughout the dry season. It was just what we were looking for. But how could we capture the interest and participation of our people?

We found numerous helpful materials. An organization called the H20 Project sent us wrist bracelets and little cards. The cards suggested that by giving up things like sodas, bottled water, espresso drinks or other beverages, that people drink water only for two weeks and give the money saved from that change to the water project. The wrist-bands were daily, visible reminders of those commitments. The first weekend of our emphasis, I put $20.00 in, representing the money I would save by not drinking expensive robust coffee from my favorite, large, Seattle based coffee purveyor (not to mention any names).

We also placed large 5 gallon water jugs (empty) around in different places throughout the church. These would be our collection containers - visible reminders of how readily we can have not just safe water but distilled bottled water. Since the bottles were clear, we could watch the progress of the fund each week. It was so much fun to watch kids of all ages bring plastic zip-lok bags of change and pour it into the barrel. The first couple of weeks, those coins would hit the hard plastic bottom of the barrel and make a loud, reverberating “kerplunk.” Adults would bring rolls of bills – ones, fives, tens, even hundreds – and force them down through the narrow opening at the top of the barrels. People who visited the office, located in another building on our campus, could make a contribution there as well.

We soon began to realize that we had set our sights to low. We wouldn’t know for sure until we cut the barrels open and counted the money, but everyone could see that the fund was growing; welling up like a fresh spring of water and coming close to overflowing. With eager anticipation, we waited until after our Christmas Eve services to count the money. When we finally did extract it all from our collection barrels, we were amazed to discover that over $8,400.00 had been raised. And that was in addition to our Card/blanket project, our annual Deacon’s offering, and people’s regular gifts.

A comment heard often was “This was so meaningful. It truly made my Christmas meaningful.” Another was “Will we do this again next year?” I don’t think there is a doubt about it. What kind of gift could better represent the sacrificial gift of God’s Son, whose birth we celebrate each Christmas? Not an ugly tie or a pair of socks or an “executive desk organizer.” This same Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will never thirst but in him, springs of living water will well up to eternal life.” What a joy it has been to give water in His name. Christmas will never be the same.