Sustainability is something people in our line of work talk about a lot. How can you stay for the long haul, and not burn out? How can you make sure programs, traditions, and services are not based solely on you and your work, but can continue on for many years? Sustainability is like the opposite of how many evangelicals typically work: quick, fast, results oriented, crash-and-burn. One of the reasons we were so drawn to our mission organization is that they have a commitment to contemplation--recognizing that without taking the space for finding God in your own life, you will never be able to care for others.
Which is why it is super helpful to think about what can be sustained for the long haul when it comes to strategic decisions regarding time, money, and emotional energy.
We made the decision that it wasn't sustainable to fly to Oregon every Christmas. It's a hard decision (um, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by Dean Martin is on repeat this morning, along with "A Tender Tennessee Christmas" by Amy Grant, even though I never lived in Tennessee. Because Nostalgia). But it's the right decision for us. Neighbors and friends have come out of the woodwork, and we are going to have ourselves a patchy, somewhat merry, somewhat sad little Christmas. Which seems pretty sustainable for our future.
What about celebrating Advent?
We light Advent candles with our daughter, read some Scripture, and pray. She gets super excited to blow the candles out, and the rest is probably over her head. Is this sustainable? Yes, I think it is. As one of my friends pointed out, if one of my neighbors asked how we celebrated Advent, this would be an affordable, accessible option. Is unwrapping a piece of the $50 Playmobile nativity set every day of Advent a great way to engage your kids in the story of the birth of Jesus? Sure. Are "kindness elves" awesome? Totally. Are fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars the best thing ever? Yes, absolutely.
But are these things sustainable, for our neighbors both near and far? I don't think so. Many people do not have the resources to pull off these bits of "Christmas magic" that we so casually revere. I am all for whimsy and encouraging imagination and celebrating with some good fair-trade chocolate, but I also want to recognize how so many children do not experiences these privileges in any way.
Which brings me to Santa.
Santa, and his cultural counterpoint of the perfect, Norman Rockwell family christmas, took ahold of our cultural imagination many years ago. I used to not care at all about this. Growing up, we were pretty lackadaisical about it all (and my parents refused to lie--so if we asked, they told us santa was a fake). But we still laid out the cookies, got a few presents labeled "from St. Nick". But my biggest memories were of Christmas eve services and sitting quietly in front of a brightly lit tree.
Now, in my neighborhood, I can't help but see images of a weird, materialistic holiday everywhere. Red-nosed reindeer and some fat man with presents, as far as the eye can see. And I am starting to loathe it. Because Santa is not sustainable.
For those who grow up poor in America, Santa is another reminder of failure. Kids can't help but grow up and be saturated with the story, which puts pressure on the adults in their life to find the time/money/energy to get the presents the kids want. People go into debt, people spiral into depression, kids are disappointed and feel shamed, Christmas morning turns into another reminder of the inequalities of the world. The picture-perfect family Christmas is the same way--for many, all of these images we see in the movies and on tv are just a stark reminder of our own families--the mental illness, the addictions, the abuse, the empty seats around the table. The myth of the perfect family Christmas is not sustainable either, because our nuclear families were never supposed to be the point.
What is sustainable, then?
I have learned some things from my Muslim friends. Their holidays are smashingly good--count yourself blessed if you ever get invited over for Eid. I have seen Eid celebrated in several different states and countries, and there are always striking similarities: the celebrations are marked by food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity.
A lot of food, or just a little. Your family, what remains of it, plus your new family you have formed in the diaspora. Friends, neighbors, co-workers invited to experience the richness of your culture and celebration. Prayer, early in the morning, and throughout the day, thanking the One who created us all. Generosity--extra food cooked, coins given to the children--reminding us to always extend our table.
That, my friends, is sustainable.
I've started to think about what I want the holidays to look like for me and my little family. Food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. All the elements have been modeled to me from the beginning from my own parents, and it is time to claim them for my little space now. Even thought sometimes I will be far from my parents and sisters, i will still value family, and use the definition that Christ gave me (we are all brothers and sisters). I will cook food, even if it doesn't look pretty. I will pray the prayers that have been spoken throughout the centuries to celebrate the coming of Christ (the Magnificat, my friends, is extremely sustainable). And I will try to be generous, try to escape the pull to only seek out what is best for me and mine in these dark and bright weeks. I will try and stick around long enough to have space for those who have been bruised and battered by the cultural expectations of Christmas. And there are so many of these souls, more than we can possibly know, longing for a real, sustainable celebration--firmly anchored in this real world, yet a mirror of the great parties we will have in heaven.
Like Mary, may our souls magnify the Lord. May we seek out the humble and exalt them, fill the hungry with good things.
And most of all, may we be ever mindful of His mercy.