Black Friday, Thanksgiving, and Advent: Whose Story? Which Liturgy? What Kingdom?

I have to be honest, Thanksgiving holds a great deal of rather acute tension for me. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful when Thanksgiving Day rolled around…thankful even. And not only for some time off from a job that had not been going as well as I’d hoped, but also for the provision that God has provided for us during a big time of transition. But its also clear that in the wider American culture Thanksgiving is just really Black Friday Eve, a day which serves as a convenient means to advertise while we watch football and stuff ourselves. As a culture we go from a day set aside (we are told) for thanks to a day specifically created for consumption and the cult of consumerism – Black Friday, a truly dark day in which people get trampled, pummeled, and even killed for cheap crap. But I ask: is it any surprise that with the entrenchment of such a formative cultural liturgy that people act in accordance with the narrative of consumerism in which they have been shaped?

It may seem strange to some to refer to Black Friday as part of a ‘cultural liturgy’, but James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom (rightly I think) advocates such a designation in order to “unveil the character of what presents itself as benign” and to even “recognize the charged, religious nature of cultural institutions [ie, the mall] that we all intend to inhabit as if they were neutral sites.” But as Smith contends, the mall is not a neutral site and it does indeed have its own liturgy, its own formative pedagogy of desire, its own form of worship that shapes what we love and forms us into particular kinds of persons who desire a certain kind of kingdom.

“The mall is a religious institution because it is a liturgical institution, and it is a pedagogical institution because it is a formative institution.” (Smith, 22-24, 54-55)

The Saturday after Black Friday I have come to think of as ‘Sandwich Saturday’, as it falls between Black Friday and the first Sunday of Advent. ‘Sandwich Saturday’ for me is filled with an eschatological tension of sorts between two ways of marking time, between two kingdoms if you will. The kingdom represented by Black Friday marks time with the narrative of consumerism and what we might call the ‘Hallmark Holy-days’ (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Memorial Day, New Years), which create a distinctly American liturgy which feeds the narrative of consumerism. It is here that a co-opted Christmas day comes to basically serve as the bookend opposite to Black Friday in the quasi-holy observance of the ‘Holiday Sopping Season’.

During this time of year I have a confession to make: I really don’t care if store clerks tell me ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’. The so called ‘War on Christmas’ is really about the dissipation of Christendom and ‘cultural Christianity’ which are just as much co-optings of Christmas as American consumerism, and indeed, are most often wed tightly to the consumeristic narrative. Christians who insist that store clerks should say ‘Merry Christmas’ all the while ringing up the latest stack of presents on an already maxed out credit card are seriously missing the irony. In my opinion for stores to say ‘Happy Holidays’ is the most appropriate thing because it brings to the light exactly what the ‘Holiday Shopping Season’ is,  the staple of the American liturgical year – narrating us into the civil religion of consumerism, with the marketers serving as our chief priests, and retail stores and mall our cathedrals.

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the church year and specifically marks time with the narrative of Christ. Smith offers some instructive words to help us understand how Advent and the Christian liturgical year help us to mark time differently. He says,

“the Christian observation of Advent marks a different orientation to time, particularly when it is recognized that Advent is a penitential season of denial and self-examination rather than accumulation, consumption, and self-indulgence. The distinct marking of time that is integral to historic Christian worship establishes a sense that the church is a ‘peculiar people,’ and the liturgical calendar already constitutes a formative matrix that functions as a counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture.” (156-57)

And he continues,

“During Advent each year, the Christian year teaches us to once again become Israel, recognizing our sin and need, that waiting, longing, hoping, calling, praying for the coming of the Messiah, the advent of justice, and the inbreaking of shalom. We go through the ritual of desiring the kingdom – a kind of holy impatience – by reenacting Israel’s longing for the coming of the King. We are called to be a people of expectancy – looking for the coming (again) of the Messiah.” (157-58)

And he finally concludes,

“We are called to be a people of memory…citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by ‘the contemporary.’ The practices of Christian worship over the liturgical year form in us something of an ‘old soul’ that is perpetually pointed to a future, longing for a coming kingdom, and seeking to be such a stretched people in the present who are a foretaste of the coming kingdom.” (159, bold mine)

An ecclesia of people who are a ‘foretaste of the kingdom’ – this is what we are to be. My suggestion here is that the best way to go about being this sort of people (well, at least a first step) is not to take part in the civil religious culture war over ‘Happy Holidays’ vs ‘Merry Christmas’ but to adopt a counter liturgy and counter story to the ‘Holiday Shopping Season’ in the form of the ancient Christian observance of Advent – both individually and ecclesially/communally.  With Smith we can say that this counter liturgy and counter story of Advent and the church year shapes our desire, and our love, for an alternative Kingdom to the kingdom of the god of American consumerism.

At this point I have another confession to make: it frustrates me that it seems that everywhere I look there is a failure to make the Advent/Kingdom link that is essential. The missing piece in most Advent observances that I see (just as with the huge missing aspect in how we talk about the gospel) is the Kingdom piece. The stories surrounding the birth of Christ in the Gospels all have to do with the clash of kingdoms and the subversion of all earthly kingdoms. Advent is a recapitulation in liturgical form and celebration of the coming of, not merely a personal savior (I have become convinced that if you only know Jesus as personal savior you don’t really know Jesus!), but of the liberating King Jesus as a baby in the incarnation.

The four weeks of Advent traditionally focus on four themes with corresponding candles that lead up to the Christ candle. In the church we attend, the themes for this year are: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love (this is basically traditional but there can be variation. The Mosaic Bible uses Longing, Hope, Anticipation, and Preparation for its themes). My point here is that (it seems) most folks make these themes almost purely existential, that is, something they experience or feel on the inside as an individual. But, without denigrating the importance of feelings,  I want to suggest that these themes are ecclesial and communal more than they are individual and that they correspond most specifically to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love that comes with liberating King Jesus is about so much more than existential goosebumps – not just the hope inside me somewhere, but Kingdom hope for the world; not just the peace I feel, but Kingdom peace for the world; not just the joy I experience inwardly, but Kingdom joy for the world; not just the love I have for myself, but Kingdom love for the world.

The season of waiting and preparation of Advent is a season of forming ourselves and our desires, our loves, into Kingdom people who desire the Kingdom and the liberating King Jesus above all things. Advent is about more than what we feel, it is about the Kingdom and King we love and serve.

Therefore I think the questions before us are thus:

Whose story do we tell?

Which liturgy shall form us?

The story and liturgy of the American cult of consumerism…

The story and liturgy of Christendom and ‘cultural Christianity’…

…or the story of Christ and the counter liturgy of the church year?

What Kingdom will we desire?

The consumerist kingdom and civil religion of Western/American capitalism…

The kingdom of Western Christendom and American civil religion…

…or the true Kingdom of our liberating King Jesus.

Whose story? Which liturgy? What Kingdom?

Our answers to these questions will determine the kind of people we are, the people whose we are, and what it is that we love.

While you’re here check out the latest Advent Conspiracy video from Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston, who echoes James K.A. Smith’s point about liturgy and formation well when he says, “Is the system we’ve invested our lives in, is it corrupt? Are these the people God made us to be?” [Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All]

Advent Conspiracy – Black Friday

[AC] Black Friday from Advent Conspiracy on Vimeo.

Advent Conspiracy – Enter the Story 2011 [also check out Living Water International]

Thanksgiving 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Daddy!

I woke up this morning with a very eager daughter wanting me to see the Thanksgiving card she had made us. Here is a sampling of her handiwork. I especially like the hand turkeys that she drew. Christie and I really liked it.

But what really warmed my heart was the note she wrote on the white part of the card. It says:

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

I have been learning about colonial times and I realize how fortunate I am to have everything you give me. They didn’t have much then, so I am thankful that I have food and water, family and friends, clothes to wear, and shelter to live in. I am thankful I can be thankful, for the love you give me, and last but not least, I am thankful for you.

Sincerely, Damaris

I think that every parent has certain values that they want their kids to understand. And it means a lot when they show evidence that they “get it.” For us we have intentionally sought to not get entangled in the consumerism of American culture and instead have pursued a life of missional living and the pursuit of simplicity. I wonder more and more whether the pursuit of the “American dream” is compatible with following Christ. It seems to only complicate our lives and produce with us a longing that every wants more and more. I think perhaps the “pursuit of liberty” part might fit, but it would require I think the pursuit of liberty (and justice) for others who don’t have it than rather my own liberty. Anyways, in the back of my mind I have always wondered, “does Damaris get it?” Is she learning about being grateful, because compared to many others she and we are still a very blessed family? The very first thing I thought was, “she gets it!” It feels good that she knows she is a fortunate and blessed little girl.

What I’m thankful for…

  • I’m thankful for being married to the best wife in the world.
  • I’m thankful for Damaris. She is growing up way too fast though.
  • I’m thankful for Thanksgiving which means food, family, and football.
  • I’m thankful the Dallas Cowboys won today.
  • I’m thankful for good books on theology.
  • I’m thankful for hugs and kisses from my wife.
  • I’m thankful for hugs and kisses from Damaris.
  • I’m thankful for being able to remember the babies we lost: Jordan Taylor, Micah Jayden, and Noah Avery. We hold them in our hearts daily.
  • I’m thankful we will be able to see them one day in the new heaven and new earth.
  • I’m thankful for Kerioth Cherie. She only graced us with her presence for a little while but we treasure the time we had.
  • I’m thankful for the season of Advent and the opportunity to connect more with the Christ story.
  • I’m thankful for a God who blesses us beyond measure and loves us without condition.
  • I’m thankful for a God that does the seemingly unthinkable and includes us in His mission.

A challenge…

In light of Thanksgiving I have a challenge I want to issue. While its good to be thankful on an individual basis, in the coming year don’t be content to just be thankful by yourself. Instead multiply your thankfulness with others in genuine community. And don’t stop there. Don’t be content to keep your thankfulness to yourself. Instead in the coming year further multiply your thankfulness through participation with others in outwardly focused missional community. Take your thankfulness to others. There are many in the world that genuinely find Thanksgiving and the holiday season hard. Some are poor and have little to be thankful for while others are consumed with grief during this time of year (something that we at the Almon house have experienced ourselves). In case you haven’t noticed, the consistent testimony in the Bible is that such people are close to the heart of God. The thankfulness we as a community have in Christ should move us to care deeply about what and who God cares about and into participation in God’s mission to those that have nothing to be thankful for. In my opinion the church needs to be distinguished as a genuinely thankful missional community centered around Christ. But I have found many times that quite a few don’t understand this vision of what it means to be the church. And its understandable really. Such a vision requires a total paradigm shift, or should we say many paradigm shifts. So, if you read this and you’re not sure whether others will understand the idea of a thankful missional community, then my challenge is to be the one to spread the vision wherever God may have you.

Finally, today we stand on the verge of the “start” of the Christmas shopping season (although I was in Wal-Mart the other day and it really appeared to already be in full force). I feel the sad reality is that in the name of “giving” to others many Christ followers (perhaps unintentionally but no less substantially) will participate full force and contribute to the consumerism that has come to mark the season. I have spoken to many that seem to think we know it’s a good Christmas season when we can find the stuff we want to get and be sure that the cashier says, “Merry Christmas” to us and not, “Happy Holidays.” Now, I don’t have anything against cashiers saying “Merry Christmas,” but I do seriously wonder if Christ continues to want his name attached to the rampant consumerism of the season. Seriously, what kind of witness is it when businesses are forced (by threat of boycott) to say “Merry Christmas” and then Christians stand at the register and participate in the same consumeristic ritual as everyone else? What good does it do to boycott business that refuse to say “Merry Christmas” when it doesn’t mean Christians are going to spend less. No, it seems that most would just go somewhere else and spend just as much! Have we reduced Christ’s name to simply a matter of determining who gets our business?

Some may want to push back on me here and contend its not as bad as I’m making it out to be. However, I have worked at Wal-Mart and all I can say is that the holiday shopping season is disheartening. Black Friday is indeed a dark day. I have worked Black Fridays (at both secular and Christian retail stores) before and have found them to be gross displays of consumeristic gluttony. I can tell you that one’s spending habits reveal a lot about what’s in the heart and one’s values. Now I realize that we all have to buy stuff and to an extent its nice to have stores available to get the things we need. But sadly, the spending habits in general and Christmas shopping habits in particular that I saw from fellow professing Christians weren’t all that different, and sometimes even more consumeristic than non-Christians. In fact, I had a manager when I first started at Wal-Mart who did not have a favorable impression of Christians. But right before Thanksgiving my first year he told me that at this time of year he really liked Christians. Noticing the sarcasm in his voice I asked why. He told me, “Its because during this time of year Christians show just how hypocritical they are. They spend just as much, and even more, than everyone else and then complain about how consumeristic all the non-Christians are. But at least they spend their money right? After all, that’s the really important thing.” As a manager at a big box chain store this guy obviously reflects the values of consumerism. But I am afraid that he hits way too close to home for many American Christians. Honestly, let’s say it for what it is. His statement was based on first hand experience of Christians complaining about one thing and then going and actively participating in that very thing!

In the present state of things I believe we have more pressing concerns than whether others want to say “Merry Christmas” or not. We all need to look at ourselves and see how we contribute to the proliferation of consumerism. I say this with all seriousness: maybe the best way to “reclaim” Christmas is not to force others to say “Merry Christmas” but to repent of our consumerism and change the way we spend our money and Christmas shop – to connect ourselves more fully into the Christ story. I’m not saying that gift giving is a bad thing. In fact, the act of gift giving can be an awesome reflection of the heart of God. God calls us to gift giving and gift giving can itself be missional. But in the present holiday “shopping season” gift giving has been co-opted, distorted, and deformed. Instead of revealing the heart of God and participation in the mission of God, gift giving far too often reveals the depths of Christian consumerism, which then gets passed on to our kids and so the cycle continues. I want to propose the redemption of gift giving! My challenge to any who might read this is, as you venture out into the full swing of holiday shopping (and perhaps even Black Friday) is to rethink your gift giving this year. I’m not in the position to make demands but if you would, ask yourself some questions. Does my gift giving this season reveal the heart of God or the heart of consumerism? Does my gift giving produce more consumeristic longing in the one receiving the gift (my children perhaps) or does it connect them to the shalom (peace, holistic well being) of God? Does my gift giving proceed from and produce more consumerism, or does it create space for shalom? Is there such a thing as missional gift giving? If so what might it look like for you and your family? May our thanksgiving today lead us into the peace and shalom of the Christ child!