Joining the Advent Conspiracy and Refocusing on What Matters

I’ve been posting scriptures with brief reflection related to the advent season, the time we look ahead to the coming of Christ.  You can read about why I am doing this here.  Today’s scripture is one of my favorites, from Isaiah 55:

55 “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

2 Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.

3 Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.

I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.

4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a ruler and commander of the peoples.

5 Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you,

because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.

7 Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.

Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it

without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.

This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.” 

The rest of this post is a reflection I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Advent Conspiracy.  But I have not had a chance to post it yet, so here it is.  I think it goes along well with Isaiah 55, as we ask the question: are we spending our money, strength and effort on things that will truly satisfy us?

The holiday season started with gusto on Black Friday (or was it Thursday?) as crowds of people shoved and fought there way through Wal-Marts, Targets and even Victoria’s Secrets in search of low-priced deals.  You do not have to look far in the virtual world we live in to see videos that could lead a rational person to wonder if this is the downfall of western civilization.  I’ll spare you by not offering any links other than this one that mentions a few horror stories from Black Friday, including shootings and an abandoned child.

Many conservative Christians, assuming they are not joining in the pushing and shoving for deals, spend a large portion of the holiday season complaining over the word “holiday.”  Wish such a person “Happy Holidays” and risk getting a sharp response reminding you that they are celebrating Christmas.

I am all for getting back to the real meaning of Christmas.  I think too many people in our culture are obsessed with the wrong thing, primarily getting more and more stuff.  Americans spend about 450 billion dollars on Christmas each year.  With  much of that ending up on credit cards, many exit the Christmas season with a lot of new debt.  But I honestly don’t think it matters whether a person says “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.”  You can say “Merry Christmas” all you want and still miss the point of the holiday season.

This is why I am so grateful to have learned about Advent Conspiracy in the past couple of years.    Advent Conspiracy is “a movement designed to help us all slow down and experience a Christmas worth remembering. But doing this means doing things a little differently. A little creatively.”  There are four principles of Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All.  Many churches spend four weeks teaching through these four principles, and the Advent Conspiracy website offers some helpful resources for that.

I work as the part-time English Minister at the Korean Church of Lehigh Valley right outside of Allentown, PA.  We are learning about these four principles during Advent this year.  This past Sunday we spent time talking about both spending less and giving more.  At first glance, these two principles may seem to contradict each other, how do you give more if you are spending less?

The point comes when you realize how many of the gifts you buy people, you only buy out of necessity.  You often buy a gift for a person because you feel like you have to, even though you know it is not something they want or need.  We can all remember receiving gifts that we pretended to like.  That is if we remember the gift at all.  It is a struggle to remember the gifts we got just last year, let alone many years ago.

This comes home to me as the parent of a nineteen month old.  My world revolves around my daughter.  As she grows up, do I want her Christmases to be all about the myriad of presents she gets?  Will I teach her that life is all about what you can get?  Or is there something I can do to teach her the value of giving more, while at the same time spending less.

One way to give more is to get creative.  Instead of just buying a gift card for someone so you can check them off the list, what is something you can get them that shows you care?  I know that the best gift I could get my dad would be tickets to a baseball game and the promise of father-son quality time together.  But if you’re not creative, don’t worry, you can Google “creative Christmas gifts” and get all sorts of ideas.

A second way to give more is to give money in a way that will change a person’s life.  This is something my wife and I have tried to do for the last few years.  We were the weirdos in our family that gave people a card saying, “A goat has been donated in your name to a family in Uganda”.  But most people in our family really appreciated it.

The cool thing is, there are so many ways to do this that are much more meaningful than just giving money.  Many relief organizations have gift catalogs, so you can look through there, with your children if you have any, and decide what gift you want to give.  It could be school supplies to a girl in Pakistan or a cow to a family in Zaire.

Another way to give is micro-finance loans.  Here you do not just give charity, you empower someone to start a business.  I first did this a few months ago, motivated by the amazing book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky.  Through an organization called Kiva, I contributed $25 to a woman in Tajikistan so she could buy some cloth to start a business.  Then a few months later I got an email telling me she had repaid the loan!  Here I was with my $25 back, so I made a new loan.  It is so awesome not just to give money to an organization, but to give it to a person and then see how they use it to change their lives.

As we put more thought into the gifts we get for those close to us and as we make an effort to give more to those in need around the world, we are joining the conspiracy.  We are breaking free from the bondage of consumerism.  We are encountering some of the deepest beauties of Christmas.  When God visited this planet it was in the form of a helpless baby born to an unwed peasant teenage girl.  Yet through the smallness of this act, the world was turned upside down.  We renew our commitment to Jesus and learn that small acts such as spending less and giving more can change our lives and the lives of others for the better.

In other words, a truly fulfilling holiday does not come from fighting through crowds at Wal-Mart or from all the presents under the tree, it comes from a life centered on the one whose birth we celebrate and a life lived in seeking to give love to others as he gave love to us.

Places to give:

Kiva.org

World Vision

Global Giving 

International Justice Mission

Heifer International

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The Mind and The Machine (Review)

Any book that combines a discussion of Raymond Kurzweil’s theory of the coming singularity with analysis of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is probably going to be a good read.  Matthew Dickerson’s The Mind and The Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters does not disappoint.  Dickerson’s basic question in the book is to ask whether a human can be understood as just a complex biological machine.  This view he calls physicalism, where the physical world of matter is all there is.  Dickerson contrasts this with dualism, the view that a human consists not just of body, but of body and spirit.

The first half of the book is focused on showing the shortcomings of a physicalist view.  He argues that under physicalism, things like creativity and heroism cease to exist.  Creativity is defined as the bringing of something new into existence, something original.  Heroism is making virtuous choices.  The problem is that under physicalism there is no free will.  If humans are just biological machines, extremely complex computers, we can only do what we have been programmed to do by nature or nurture.

He also argues, suprisingly, that physicalism leads to a devaluing of nature.  This appears surprising because it is often religious people, at least of certain persuasions, who are seen as so valuing the spiritual that they care nothing for the world around them.  But Dickerson says that the views of Kurzweil and others devalue the body: if we’re going to merge with computers, what need is there for the natural world?  Further, if the only things that exist are physical things, Dickerson argues than everything humans do is “natural.”  Humans, as part of nature, do natural things, whether this is polluting rivers or cleaning them.  And if determinism is true, which it must be under this view, then it is inevitable that we will do whatever we do.  There is nothing “unnatural.”

Dickerson’s third argument may be even more surprising, as he argues that physicalism gives less reason to trust in reason or science than does dualism.  In this he turns some physicalist arguments back on themselves.  Many say that humans only believe in religion as part of our evolutionary programming, it was something helpful in the past.  Yet if all our beliefs only come about out of usefulness, then the same is true of our trust in reason.  If a mind outside the physical brain is illusion, then so to is reason.

The second part of the book then goes through the same subjects, showing how a dualist perspective better accounts for human creativity, heroism and the rest.  It should be noted that Dickerson argues for an integrative dualism where body and soul cannot be separated from each other, both are needed for a human to be fully human.  This differs from a “ghost in the machine” dualism where the soul is like an entity living in the body, pulling the levers and running the show.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.  It covers a lot of ground while engaging with a variety of fields from science to literature.  Dickerson does not claim to have a knock-down rational argument for or against naturalism or dualism.  Instead his point is to ask which view better explains our existence as humans: “What I have suggested was that if humans are spiritual beings, then we ought to have some spiritual compass” (206).

To Dickerson, and I think he’s right, it comes down to assumptions.  If you assume from the outset that humans are just physical creatures and nothing more, that the brain is just the matter you can see inside a skull, then no argument for a soul makes sense.  Dickerson asks us to question that assumption.  What if we leave open the possibility that there is more to the world than what science can find, then what is physical and material?  Does a spiritual sense better explain creativity and heroism, reason and a moral basis for ecological practice (i.e., polluting the planet is wrong).  If so, perhaps there is something out there beyond the natural world.

That said, questioning our assumptions is tough.  If Dickerson can get us to do that, he has succeeded.

Finally, I did think the book slowed down near the end.  Perhaps, and this will sound bad coming from a Christian pastor, it is because that while his defense of creativity and heroism relied on the work of Tolkien, his defense of reason and science rested on scripture.  I believe everything he said about scripture is true and that there is a strong motivation in there for trusting reason and doing science.  But using scripture to support the argument in one chapter and not another seemed uneven.  It would have been better either to add scripture to the heroism and creativity chapter, or to find examples (like Tolkien) for the science and reason chapter.