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Simple Gifts – October 24, 2010

$288. That amount of money means different things to different people. Depending on where you live in the world and what sort of work you do, that could be a day’s wages, or a week’s, or a month’s. It could be a car payment, or a car repair bill that’s too high for you to pay. For almost anybody, its an amount of money you wouldn’t mind getting, and that you’d notice if you lost. Well, for Magnus Knudson of Cincinnati, OH, that amount – $288 – has a very specific meaning. That is the amount of money which he donated just two weeks ago to the Ronald McDonald House near his home. Ronald McDonald House is an international charity that provides temporary housing to families with sick children – when a child has to travel far from home and spend a long stay in the hospital, these houses give their parents and siblings a place to stay, and a way to get some support. Now, as I sort of said before, $288 is far more money than I carry around with me. But its also not exactly a record breaking sum. The reason I am telling you about it, the reason I heard it about it in the first place is that Magnus Knudson is five years old. He turned five, just a few weeks ago and he asked his friends and everyone he invited to his fifth birthday party, to please not bring him any gifts. No dolls, no trains, no video games. Just would they please make a small donation to the charity of his choice; and together, those added up, to $288.[i]

When I was five years old, I can remember that I liked getting presents, and also that my parents liked giving them. My mom had a closet that was off limits where she kept a bunch of toys that were still in their packaging. That way if I got invited to a birthday party, or if there was any other occasion for giving a gift to another child on short notice, she’d be all set. It was the same place where she kept the gifts for my brothers and I, as the December days grew shorter, and Christmas drew close. Growing up, my family didn’t really care much for the religious part of Christmas; as Humanist Atheists, we found that even the Christmas Eve service at our Unitarian Universalist congregation tested our limits. But we did observe what is sometimes called a secular Christmas, something that has come to be much maligned in recent years. We’d travel for days, to visit far away family. We’d share meals together and enjoy each others’ company. My mother and her siblings would tell stories from their childhood, and particularly as I grew older, we’d remember the people who were no longer with us to share in the holiday.

There were also presents, under the tree. In a practice that I think is well in-line with the values of Unitarian Universalism, and the focus we place on truth and reason, in religion and everywhere else, my parents told me from the very beginning. “These presents are from us; we want you to have them because we love you and we want to see you happy. They are not the measure of how good or how bad you were this year, and they were not delivered from the North Pole by a magical fellow in red and his kindly woodland helpers. Santa Claus is not a literal person,” they taught me. “Santa Claus is a symbol of the spirit of giving.” That lesson did cause a little trouble for me when I was five years old. Some kids in my kindergarten class were talking about Santa Claus, and I chimed in with the whole “symbol of the spirit of giving thing”; it was not a very popular opinion.

Today, my partner and daughter and I have a different tradition than the one I grew up with – the December holiday we celebrate at home is Hanukkah, rather than Christmas. They are two fairly different holidays; Christmas is one of the most important observances in Christianity, while in Judaism, Hanukkah is a fairly minor festival. Historically, gift-giving wasn’t a major part of Hanukkah, but in America, where Christmas is a very big deal, it has come to be an almost inescapable part of the holiday. So my experience of the “secular Christmas” of my childhood, now informs the way I practice that other December holiday: as a time for gathering together with people I care about, for remembering the past, and for being generous with others.

Earlier, we heard the youth choir sing, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free…” Those words were written by Elder Joseph Brackett, a Shaker.[ii] The Shakers were a Christian sect that had some notoriety in the first hundred years or so of US history – their religion was founded by a woman whom they believed to be the second coming of Christ. Their worship involved lots of singing and dancing, and that particular song is probably a tune for a worship dance: “To turn, turn, will be our delight…” probably indicates a step in the dance. The Shakers were strictly celibate, and so their faith only grew through conversion and adoption. Considered heretics by much of the general public, they were wildly unpopular, and after enough laws were passed that made it illegal for them to run orphanages, their population declined sharply. As of earlier this year, there were thought to be exactly three living Shakers left in the United States.

Shaker values emphasize hard work and devotion to the project before you. As one Shaker saying counsels, “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.” Because of this work ethic, Shakers became famous for their craft works, and Shaker furniture in particular was and still is an expensive and sought after commodity. It was simple, beautiful, high quality work, but as the country began to industrialize, the market for it dried declined. You see, with factory labor, things like tables and chairs could be produced much faster and more cheaply. The quality wasn’t as good, and the items certainly wouldn’t last as long, but the lower price, by-and-large, won out.

That’s a pattern that’s still with us today. We live in an era of staggeringly cheap labor, and in many cases even cheaper materials. Those conditions have created a disposable society, one in which everything can, and will, be thrown away. Your coffee? No mug – a paper cup if you’re lucky, Styrofoam if you’re not. Your shirt? Likely assembled somewhere in South East Asia, out of materials that minimize both its cost and its life expectancy. Particularly in the case of technological products, we have something called planned obsolescence, which is why your cell phone or your laptop can be counted on to fail not too long after the end of its warrantee period. We own a hundred times as many things as our ancestors would have even a hundred years ago, but those things are made to last for only a fraction of the time. At the end of an object’s very short horizon of usefulness, we are trained to throw it out and get a new one. That disposable mentality towards objects bleeds into our attitude towards people, not least of all the folks who make all this stuff for us to buy – most of whom live and work in countries with far weaker labor laws than our own. We buy, we use, we discard, we buy again.

That cycle of consumption and disposal is so wounding to the soul, so damaging to our relationships with one another that it has actually spawned a religious movement to oppose it. Performer and activist Reverend Billy Talen and his Church of Stop Shopping perform credit card exorcisms and put on revival services to support ecological sustainability.[iii] Their use of the trappings of religion to counter consumerism is meant to be surprising, but it shouldn’t be. The central idea of our consumer society, that acquiring enough things can make us feel whole, and paradoxically that everything and everyone is disposable and replaceable, is entirely at odds with most religions. It is certainly at odds with my religion.

The holiday buying season, the height of consumerism’s liturgical year, starts earlier and earlier with each trip around the sun, and it is coming up fast right now. We have reached the point where stores are putting up snowflakes and Christmas trees even before they take down the bats and the jack-o-lanterns. Those of us who are parents or grandparents, who have children in our lives, experience a tremendous amount of pressure to demonstrate our affection for them by buying things. And for those of us who work for a wage, the money we have to spend represents time that we have already spent at work, away from our kids. So we find ourselves in the strange situation of spending less time with our children, in order to make enough money to show our children that we love them, by buying them things, some of which were made by children, in other countries, who are paid far less for their work than we are. Friends, everything about that is wrong.

Towards the end of his life, the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson would spend his Sunday mornings standing outside the door to his office, greeting visitors. He would stand there for hours, and each person who came to see him, he would give a blessing, and a one dollar bill. When the Rabbi handed you that dollar, he was trusting you to use it to make the world a better place. Not to do what he would do with it, but what you would do with it – to use your imagination and to be guided by your own conscience in how that money could best be spent. It is in a similar spirit that I am issuing a challenge to each of us this morning. In honor of our youth choir’s offering this morning, I’d like to call it our “Simple Gifts” project.

When we go home later today we’re going to get together with the other members of our households – for some of us, we might be a household of one, or just us and a partner, or there might be children, relatives, extended family in the picture. Sit down with whoever you’ve got, and do a little work to figure out your family budget for the month of December. The chances are that you’re planning some sort of celebration and gift exchange around then, whether its for Christmas, Hanukkah, the Solstice, Festivus, or anything else. Now take a moment to reflect on that; be honest with yourself, and be honest with the other people in your family. If you could turn off all the advertisements and all that buy-buy-buy messaging; if you could be guided only by your love for family and friends, and for other human beings, how would it change the gifts you give? How would it change the gifts you want to receive? I am challenging us, and me most especially, to live by that second budget.

This year, honey, instead of the umpteenth gadget or neck tie, I’m going to write you three love letters, and I’m not going to tell you when I’m sending them, so they’ll be a surprise. This year, instead of the latest battery powered piece of plastic, son, I’m going to finally get those cross country skis out of the garage and we’re going to go out together every Sunday that there’s snow on the ground, after church. Mom, dad, the other kids and I have agreed that this year, we’re going to make dinner together twice a month, and we all may be sick of mac’n cheese by the end of it, but we hope you’ll still appreciate the break. Spend less, love more. How much less should you spend – that’s going to depend on what works for you and your family. How much more should you love? As much as you possibly can. Get creative – love, working hand-in-hand with imagination, is a very powerful force. If you do that, even if you just make a few small changes in the way you celebrate, and replace just a little bit of your buying with acts of loving kindness, chances are, you’ll spend less money than you were originally planning to. So I’m going to ask you to take that money, and bring it back here. We’re going to collect it here at the church, and then we’re going to give it away.

Now, I’m not going to be the one who says where that money goes, and neither are any of the rest of us up here, for that matter. The people who are going to make that decision are downstairs right now; they’re the children and youth of this congregation.  In November, they’re going to vote, like good Unitarian Universalists, on what charity or agency or project they most want to see that money go towards. So by the time we collect it in December, you’ll know what your donation is going towards. Together, we can choose to make our holidays about human relationship, and valuing people over things. I hope you will join me.

What I am asking us to do, is not particularly for others. I hope that it will benefit others, and that is a very good thing, but that’s not what’s going to get you to embrace this idea with your whole heart. You see when Magnus Knudson gave his birthday money to the Ronald McDonald House, I don’t think it was because he chose the name out of the phone book. His mom has survived multiple brain tumors; she’s been very sick, and that’s been a part of Magnus’ life, just like school and friends and learning to read. When a boy with a sick mom wants to help families with sick children get the support they need, I can’t help but see a connection there. Sometimes giving to others, even the very simplest gifts that we can give, can help us to heal ourselves. So this year, may we help to heal the world, and ourselves, by giving what it is we have to give. Amen.




[iii] Rev. Billy’s group has recently renamed itself, The Church of Life After Shopping:


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