National Lutheran News

A gift-free Christmas?

It’s more complicated than you think!

Is skipping gifts the best way
to acknowledge the ultimate gift?
That’s your call — but it’s more
complicated than you may think.

Is this the year to go gift-free for Christmas? With unemployment rising,
many families already face a giftless Christmas. Churches frantically collect
presents to stave off that dread prospect.

Others more fortunate also skip or limit gifts. The Rev. Peter Meier, assistant
to the president for missions with Minnesota South District of the Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod, says he and his three siblings decided not to
exchange presents this year. “It’s kind of crazy when you get to this age to
think that you’ve got to give gifts to siblings,” says the Rev. Meier, age 53.

Skipping gifts puts focus on family time — and on the ultimate gift, Jesus.
Yet is going gift-free the Christlike thing to do? The U.S. economy is the
world’s largest. Consumer spending represents two-thirds of U.S. economic
activity, and retailers’ lifeblood is fourth-quarter holiday spending.

In these difficult times, if you have it to spend — should you? U.S. shoppers’
annual Christmas splurge keeps people working — your neighbors next door
and around the world.

Do we owe it to them to go out and buy, buy, buy?

‘Give all you have’

The rich young man said he kept all the commandments. Jesus told him: “One
thing thou lackest: Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and
thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”

Is that what we should do? If so, how? By donating to Lutheran Social Service
or other charities?

Or should we head for the mall? If we shop until we drop, is that a way of
giving all we have to the poor — to theworkers around the world who make
and pack and ship and sell and deliver?

Or would it merely enrich overpaid executives?

The Bible and other early Christian writings offer little guidance on this one,
says New Testament scholar David Fredrickson of Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
Early Christians couldn’t conceive of our present economy, says Fredrickson.
Still, helping the poor “is a recurring theme in early Christian literature,” he
adds, “though this only makes the dilemma more painful, since we know we
have a responsibility but we don’t know exactly how to fulfill it.”

Fredrickson points to Martin Luther, who insisted that, in matters of civil
righteousness, all we have is human reason — not divine revelation. “And this
means,” Fredrickson adds, “that if anyone — no matter what their religious or
intellectual affiliation — has a good idea how to solve this dilemma, that
person should be taken very seriously.”

So pay attention. Here are some thinking points:

* Gifts honor recipients and reflect on the giver, says the Rev. Tim
Westermeyer, executive pastor at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church
(ELCA) in Plymouth. “Gift-giving is about celebrating relationships,” he adds.
“It’s also about passing on values.” A splashy toy from Wal-Mart? Fair-trade
coffee? A donation in someone’s name? If it honors the recipient and passes
on your own values, maybe it’s just right.

* If you buy gifts, the Rev. Michael Mortvedt suggests fair-trade items that
don’t encourage sweatshop labor or bad environmental practice. Mortvedt,
co-director of a group called Alternatives for Simple Living and also vicar at
Trinity Episcopal Church in Kremmling, Colorado, says you will find ideas at
ELCA’s Good Gifts site: www.elca.org/goodgifts.

* Must you take on responsibility for the world’s well-being? No, says Meier.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think I have the obligation to buy gifts to keep the
economy healthy,” he says. His family sometimes goes with gifts such as
certificates for time together.

Shopping and Nazis

To shop or not to shop? Gary Simpson, another Luther Seminary theologian,
counts the question among what church scholars call adiaphora —
“indifferent things,” a Greek word for matters involving whatever is neither
commanded nor forbidden to Christians.

Adiaphora do matter, however. What hymn do you want sung at your funeral?
That’s an adiaphoron.

And when some German Lutheran theologians stood up in 1934 to oppose
Hitler’s takeover of the German church — that, too, was adiaphora. Yet
history knows it was of overwhelming importance.

Is it too great a stretch to compare Nazis with what’s under the tree on
Christmas morning? Maybe. Yet world recession is a dire threat. Joblessness,
poverty, and violence too often follow in that order.

Christians in Nazi Germany had a choice, albeit a hard one. So do we — a
complex one.

What choice should we make? The maddening thing is that Lutherans
accustomed to guidance from Bible or pulpit might get none on this. Yet
adiaphora, says Simpson, merit vigorous discussion — “precisely because
they are neither prescribed nor proscribed.”

Is it time for a family meeting? Skip gifts? Buy stuff that benefits the poor?
Give to a charity in one another’s names? Or hit the mall?

Maybe this is God’s second-best Christmas present: As Lutherans, we get to
figure it out for ourselves.

Marc Hequet, a lifetime Lutheran and onetime church president, is a St. Paul
journalist who covers business, energy, and religion.