Oh, I’ve been dreading this one. Ever since I saw the posters for Advent Conspiracy going up at church a few weeks ago, and I saw that the second week’s theme was about money, I knew that would be the hardest one for me. I’ve never been good with money. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t go on crazy shopping sprees for Jimmy Choo shoes or plasma screen TVs bigger than me or beluga caviar or anything like that. But I do find myself often paraphrasing Captain Jack Sparrow and wondering, “Why is the money always gone?”
It’s gone because I spent it, of course. But much of the time, I can hardly remember how I spent it. The vast majority goes toward bills, but after I’ve paid my mortgage, car payment, car insurance, cell phone and wi-fi, electricity, homeowners’ association fees, credit cards, and all the others, what I have left seems to disappear pretty quickly. I intend to track my spending; I have an app on my phone for it and everything. Despite my best intentions, though, there are always expenditures I forget to record. How much did I spend at Publix on Wednesday? Did I stop at the Starbucks drive-thru once or twice on my way to work this week? I know I said yes to the cashier who asked if I wanted to make a donation to animal rescue, but how much did I agree to add to my total?
When you throw the holidays into the mix, things get even worse. Keeping track of how many people I’m supposed to buy presents for and how much I’m supposed to spend on them is a challenge I always fail. It’s inevitable that I will leave someone off my list, then have to rush out at the last minute to get them something. Or I’ll end up going over budget because I see that one special thing that I know someone on my list would just love and I have to buy it. But as my pastor asked us this morning, how many of the gifts you received last year do you even remember? Why do we spend ourselves into debt trying to buy a gift that correlates to how much we love someone, as if anything we buy could do that? Do those people on the commercials who find a Lexus with a big red bow in the driveway on Christmas morning really feel more loved than those of us who could never ever afford such a gift??
The other day I saw a message on the side of a McDonald’s bag, “Happy Gift-fest!” It’s a special promotion the restaurant is running, but I couldn’t help thinking, that really is what Christmas has become for a lot of us. According to the Advent Conspiracy website, Americans spend more than $600 billion (yes, with a B) each year during the holiday season. How insane is that?! How did a time to remember the birth of the Prince of Peace devolve into a time to outdo each other in spending money we don’t really have to give each other stuff we don’t really need (and probably won’t remember getting a year from now)?
Thinking back on birthdays and Christmases past, the gifts I remember getting and giving were not the most expensive. I remember the hat I crocheted for my cousin Samantha a few years ago, because I had fun making it knowing it was for her, and because she still wears it in pictures I see on Facebook. I remember giving my brother Adam the movie Shrek 2 on DVD, because no one at our house had seen it but me and we laughed ourselves silly watching it as a family, something we don’t get to do that often anymore. I remember my friend Sarah giving me the book William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, because she knows me well enough to recognize that such a geeky mashup is right up my alley. I remember my high school friends conspiring to throw me a surprise party at Pizza Hut for my eighteenth birthday, but I have no recollection of any of the gifts they gave me, just the feeling of being very loved as I walked in and saw them all waiting there to surprise me.
And that’s what it really comes down to – the love. There’s no price tag for that. We don’t need piles of presents under the tree, or even to have a tree at all, in order to do Christmas right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to give gifts to the people we love. But this year instead of thinking about how much I can afford to spend on each person, what if I thought instead about how to create memories with each person? I would rather spend time being with them than spend time worrying about shopping for them. God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ was all about love – proof that God loved us enough to put on flesh and spend time with us, living and dying as one of us. He never had much money, but he was extravagant in spending his love. No matter how many holiday shopping commercials we see this year, let us follow Christ’s example instead.