Here’s an Advent exercise I enjoy practicing to keep me tethered to tranquility during the rush of Christmastime. We’re in the thick of Advent right now, but there’s still time to jump into this, and it’s a great family activity.
There are three assignments, each of which should be accomplished before Christmas day. I never do them in any particular order, but if you prefer a little more structure, go for it.
Each assignment involves giving a gift or doing a service of some kind. Here are the challenges:
1. Give something (or provide some kind of service) to someone or some organization in real need.
This one’s the easiest. Opportunities abound and folks aren’t shy about wanting your donations, contributions or time. This could be accomplished by putting money in the Salvation Army’s red bucket outside your grocery store. I’m always so impressed with the bell ringers who keep ringing even if the weather outside is indeed frightful. One year the bell ringer at our neighborhood grocer was especially good, creating syncopated rhythms and ringing with some real jive.
This could mean fulfilling a wish from some cause’s “Giving Tree” where the elderly or ill need some extra care. Is there a place – department store, office, school – near you that provides this service?
Off and on over the years I have organized the “Secret Santa” gift giving from the ward to members the bishop selects who need some extra love. This would fulfill the challenge, too. I have seen a lot of adaptation over the years in how wards handle this kind of Christmas giving. Sometimes the bishop and Relief Society President come up with specific items for particular people (like “bathroom towel set” or “XL men’s sweater”). Sometimes they just ask for donations for gift cards. Have you been involved in this kind of gift giving in your ward? I remember more than one occasion where one of the first people to volunteer to fulfill a specific need was a person whose name was on the bishop’s list of people who needed an extra boost that year. I stand in awe of their generous hearts and Christmas spirit.
This could also be achieved by going downtown with snack bars in your pockets to hand out to the homeless people begging on the sidewalks.
2. Give something to an unsung hero.
This is always fun since the person often doesn’t know you or doesn’t expect anything from you. One year I gave a small gift to the sidewalk crossing guard at my son’s elementary school. One year the dry cleaners were surprised with a loaf of holiday bread. This year I gave a box of candy to the post office workers – even after I had been in line for 40 minutes waiting to mail some packages.
This one is a particularly good one for involving children. How about the school janitor or the scout leader or the person who leads story time at the library? It’s a rich experience to consider just how many unsung heroes surround us.
3. The last one is a toughy. It’s to give something to or do something kind to someone who is a difficult person in your life or who you think my find you challenging..
This one takes a lot of thought. We lived nearby when the Boston Temple was being built, and there was a lot of community complaining about the construction of such a large and private building. It’s was the “not in my backyard” syndrome. Some of the neighbors closest to the proposed building site were especially upset about it. That year I put a box of those delicious sweet little Clementine oranges on the front stoops of three of those homes. I didn’t ring the doorbell or identify myself. It was definitely a secret act, but it expanded my heart.
When I taught seminary I gave this assignment to my students as an extra credit project. As we discussed how last this assignment might work, we realized that being kind or giving something special to one’s sibling could be the most fitting way to accomplish this task. One girl reported that she said a cheery holiday hello to her grumpy bus driver. When I asked how the driver responded, the girl said ‘She just told me to keep on moving. It was like she didn’t notice.’” Well, that’s how it goes sometimes. The exercise isn’t so much for the person we’re give to as it is for ourselves.
It’s our hearts we need to prepare for the birth of the Savior. Anything else good that happens is gravy. Or frosting on the Yule log. I love the spiritual workout this gives me every Advent season.