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3 wrapped gift boxes stacked up from largest on the bottom to smallest on top all on a wooden table, with greenery on the left and scissors and twine on the right

Focus on Leadership: A Generous People

Boxing Day, which falls on the second day of Christmas, December 26, is most prominently a European tradition that traces back to at least the Middle Ages. We may not strictly observe the holiday here in the United States, but it is known as a day for serving the poor. Or, closer to reality, those who have more in their lives deign to give some small portion of our bounty to those who have less. This sounds like a generous, caring act, but is it really?

Works of charity are encouraged in our faith lives. But we often see charity as a duty of faith, something that makes us feel good, for sharing some of what we have with others who do not have as much. We miss the heart of the act. The Greek χαρίς (charis – the root of ‘charity’) is not an act of kindness to people who have less than we do. It is an act of kindness that rises out of love. Love that is grounded in the grace of God. The kind of love acts we see Jesus do in the Gospels. Jesus wasn’t kind to the people around him simply because they needed something he could give them. He loved the people around them, and gave them what they needed because of that love.

Generosity isn’t a measure of how much we give away. When we have generous hearts, we can’t help giving what we have to others. Our money, our time, our attention, simply because we love them. A generous people seeks to love others, which means having relationships with other people.

As Christians, we follow a Christ who did not befriend people only like himself (and one could argue, if he did, he would not have any friends – any other fully divine, fully human peers out there?). He walked alongside the very poor and the very rich, those who were well-respected, and those who everyone tried to avoid. Men, women, children, people from his local area and people from far away. As he met and ate and talked and spent time with these people, he saw how he could give of himself for each of them. There was no one answer.

Unlike a box of leftovers, no matter how abundant or thoughtful or needed they may be, given to acquaintances or strangers, what if we start from a place of love? See and talk to people in our lives already, and people we meet, as equals. Build bonds of relationship – you don’t have to make everyone your new friend, but it is likely if you begin to talk and spend time with people, you will begin to see them and care about them in new ways. You will stop making assumptions about who they are and what they need based on their job or neighborhood or outward appearance or manner of speech.

That kind of grace and love will lead to kindness and generosity. You probably won’t even be able to help yourself. In this Christmas season (yes, it is still Christmas), let us start from love, and see what happens.

a bundle of cinnamon sticks tied with twine, surrounded by pine cones, walnuts in the shell and small frosted star-shaped cookies

Leading the Way: Advent and Christmas

The days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are increasingly filled with busyness – meals, shopping, decorating, pageants (so many pageants), cookie exchanges, caroling, mission projects, crafting and, oh yeah, worship. All of it is good. The gathering, the fellowship, the sharing of joy and hope and resources, the cookies. But it can become overwhelming.

At the beginning of the year, we published a piece on showing up. And we still believe it is important to be present as leaders in the church. However, it is important to be fully present when you do show up. At this time of year it can be so easy to be constantly distracted by all the other things we “have” to do while attempting to enjoy and fully engage in the thing right in front of us.

Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Elizabeth Eaton just talked about this in her December article for Living Lutheran, Disengage the Autopilot. Turns out even presiding bishops can be so preoccupied they don’t even notice anything on their commutes to work. And that is what this time of year can so often feel like – you aren’t even noticing what is happening around you. Even as you are trying to make it all so magical.

Advent is a time for preparation. And preparation involves planning and making choices. If we try to everything we could do, everything becomes less meaningful because we are simply trying to do it all, not invest real time and energy into what matters most. So, as leaders, we want to model this kind of choice to the rest of our congregation.

You might even ask yourselves, together as a leadership team, what things must be done and which things you might let go of. Which of the Advent and Christmas events that your church does match the mission, energy and time of your congregation? Which ones have become disconnected from giving life to the church and its members? Then make sure to also make those a priority for your leaders.

Perhaps every single activity you are doing is amazing and life-giving, but no one person could attend them all. Don’t try to. Instead, make sure that the leadership team is represented at all of them, but only go to the ones that you can participate in and be fully present.

Make sure your pastors are not trying to get to everything, either, beyond stopping by – especially if you are the pastor. Pastors are not separate from the rest of the leadership, nor are they superhuman. If you want your pastor (or yourself) to be fully present and deliver amazing Advent and Christmas sermons, worship, education, etc., they need to not be overwhelmed by the season, either.

Show up, yes. But make sure you are working with your fellow ruling elders and pastors to make sure when you show up, you are not distracted by the next thing on your list. This is not just for you, but it is so that you can model how to have a meaningful Advent and Christmas to others, giving them permission to breathe and enjoy this season as well. Let us slow down, not set the holidays on autopilot, and truly be there when we show up.

Peace, friends.

two glass and one paper bag luminary on a table in front of a group of people in the distant background

Focus on Resources: Sabbath Space

We don’t often think about space when we think of Sabbath. We think about it figuratively, as in making space in our lives for Sabbath. And this makes sense because we tend to think of our time as a commodity – to slice it up into pieces, and parcel it out to work, family, chores, play, spirituality, sleep. We think of it as a physical thing that we can get a hold of and manage.

Perhaps this is because time is not manageable. It is abstract. It ebbs and flows, moves quickly like a rushing river, then slows down like molasses on a cold day. We want to control it, but it seems to control us. We neglect some of the things we can control, or at least touch and grasp in reality. Like the physical space and objects around us.

We may not have the ideal space. We may dream of a bigger house, or an office with a door that closes. We may want to live in a forest, but are surrounded by streets. We may share our space with more people than is comfortable. Or be uncomfortably lonely.

Sometimes we fill our space with endless trinkets and toys, or clear all the clutter away in a fit of KonMari cleaning, hoping to find meaning in the things, or in the lack of them. We dress up our space or dress it down. But what if for Sabbath we simply gave ourselves a break?

A Sabbath idea of space might be to look around at a less than ideal space and find the good things about it. Or, in a place that is perfectly comfortable and familiar, to take some time to remember all the reasons we love being there.

In Judaism some families choose to follow stricter guidelines, making sure to finish preparing their Sabbath meals before sunset on Fridays, not using electricity throughout the Sabbath, walking instead of driving (these are just a small sampling of possible practices), while others incorporate more modern interpretations of Sabbath into their practice. The point is not be oppressive, but to give rest to even the objects that do work in our lives – in the past this might mean your donkey, today it could mean your car.

Changing how we use the physical things around us changes how we see them. If we decide not to drive, we can only go places we can walk to, and we will see things as we walk that we do not see when we drive, or we will see them at different angles, for different amounts of time.

Regardless of whether or not a Jewish family chooses to use electricity over the Sabbath, the lighting of the candles before the Sabbath evening meal is a common ritual among practicing Jews. Eating by candlelight changes the appearance of the room, the food and the faces around the table. It feels intimate and warm even in cavernous or crowded spaces. We cannot always change where we are – we do not always have the means to move or travel – but we can change how we use or see where we are.

During Advent and Christmas, Christians spend a lot of time transforming our spaces. We put up decorations, bake Christmas goodies, hang greens in churches and homes, and move furniture around to accommodate guests and gifts. We light candles for Advent and Christmas Eve, put Christmas lights on trees and houses and throughout the streets, build fires in fireplaces and yards – light in the darkness that reminds us of the hope of Christ.

For many people Advent is the Sabbath of the year. It can be busy – preparing for Christmas, celebrating Christmas, recovering from the preparation and celebration – but it is also a time set apart when we also change around our physical spaces and engage our senses in new ways, all to prepare our hearts to be changed. Again. The gift of this faith is the chance to do it all again – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time in between the festivals, and through it all, Sabbath. A chance to change how we see the world every week.

So, turn off the lights, light a candle, and look around.