Faith Works 11-29-14
First Sunday of Advent: Happy New Year!
Yes, that's right, it's a new year tomorrow.
That's a liturgical new year, anyhow. For congregations and Christian communions that observe such things, the lectionary turns from Cycle A to Cycle B (welcome Mark's gospel to heavy rotation), and the cloths on the pulpit and lectern and table (or altar as you may call it) go from the long-viewed green of "Ordinary Time" to the purple of Advent.
In the Orthodox branch of Christendom, they often call it "Christmas Lent," "Winter Lent," or the "Nativity Fast," another way of calling the weeks leading to Christmas a season of preparation. You have a few more days to prepare for those disciplines if your faith is expressed through that tradition.
For most of us in the area who go to church, Advent is a time for candles around a wreath, week by week, special devotionals or programs, often an extra reading in worship, and oh yes, it's time for Christmas shopping.
Whether your sanctuary or worship center has paraments to change or banners to put up, or if it's all a new set of digital images leading us into Christmas on the projection screens, we're surrounded by the secular proclamation to go forth and spend.
There are often in church life suggestions for alternative gifts or fasting from gift giving altogether, that you may see in denominational publications or your Sunday worship flyer. Even more common are special offerings gathered up in this season of generosity, for the denominational mission or other special missionary causes of your particular faith community.
And it's a time when our mailbox, inbox, and voicemail all fill with pleadings to give "and give generously" to all sorts of causes. I know I start to carry a stash of singles (yes, singles, don't judge) so I have something to put in the red kettles I run into hither and yon.
I do get questions this time of year about some of these drives or campaigns or causes, with the overarching issue being "which are worthy?" There are SO many fundraising pushes on right now, and it can be a nice alternative gift or simply an extra self-motivated time to share blessings with others. I get e-mail questions at this time of year from non-religious friends and readers, wanting to know much the same thing.
For an assortment of reasons, I'm reluctant to specify organizations that I don't favor giving money to. But I can tap dance around that with enough clarity to ease my conscience: if they're calling you on your landline? I wouldn't. Tell them to mail you info if you're at all interested, and I almost guarantee you that nothing will come . . . because you're hearing from a third party using the group's name and cause to raise money of which they keep often upwards of 90%. Don't give cold callers a dime is my counsel.
Those groups that want you to "sponsor" a child, animal, or vet for a small monthly contribution? I am mistrustful of the approach in general, and frankly, I have even more concrete reasons in specific cases to recommend against that model. That amount is carefully crafted to seem reasonable, and they're counting on you not to simply multiply times twelve . . . and they will hit you hard time and time again even after you "auto-pay" that monthly amount. Not all, but most of those sponsorship programs are going to umbrella groups that then pass money along to actual front-line serving organizations. You're helping pay for lots of unneeded infrastructure, IMHO. If you're tempted, and have done the math, I'd suggest doing a little online research. BBB's Wise Giving Alliance, GuideStar, and Charity Navigator can tell you plenty.
Who SHOULD you give your money to? As much as possible, I'd like to recommend giving to groups that you work with directly. That's how you know what's being done with donations, that's how you can see behind the rhetoric and the images. It can be jarring at first, but just a few hours a month can change how you look at your giving.
And frankly? It will lead you to give more. But it will be more that will literally be more of a blessing to you alongside the blessings that your gifts bring to others. I love our local Angel Tree effort with the Salvation Army, and my wife and I have other causes we have worked with and in and through for years. That's where our giving goes, and that's my guidance to you.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has found it is possible to ignore plaintive TV ads if you know what you're actually supporting! Tell him how giving has blessed you at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.