By Tom Ehrich
Religion News Service
(RNS) We will get out the Christmas music this week, but not our shopping lists nor our credit cards.
Like many Americans, we are planning a "lean" gift-giving season. There's not enough money to do as much as we would like, but even more, no particular desire to give things.
We yearn for family time. We will wait eagerly for out-of-town children to come home. I am excited about singing with my church's Gospel Choir. The recovery ministry that I coordinate will have a special richness during an emotionally trying season.
None of that yearning and excitement, however, has yet translated into shopping plans. That could change, of course, as Christmas draws near and merchants who depend on Christmas sales work at turning our thoughts to material desires.
Many of us will be hunkering down. With Washington buried in partisan paralysis and moving inexorably toward governmental breakdown, nothing is likely to improve in anyone's personal finances below the level of the super-rich. A conservative movement that sees economic
suffering as a potent political weapon seems determined to prevent anything that would ease that suffering, lest the incumbent president get a boost.
As unemployment insurance dries up, as job-creation incentives are shouted down, as state and federal budgets are intentionally starved of funds, as tax benefits flow to the rich, American citizens will be eating ideology for supper and paying their bills with Tea Party slogans.
In the face of insurgents' determination to rule, it will be wise for citizens to keep their spending in check and stay away from malls. That, of course, will worsen the recession, as retailers lose ground, inventories go unsold, seasonal hiring stays low, and stores hold on
long enough to give up their leases in January.
Churches are barely holding on, too. Some have already started the end-of-year appeals for 2010 giving. To judge by recent trends in stewardship, next year will be even leaner. Once the candles are put out on Christmas Eve, hundreds of congregations could join failing retailers
in closing their doors.
Some will give up entirely. More, I hope, will come to a fresh appreciation of themselves as faith communities -- people bound to one another and to God. I hope they can make a bold determination not just to hang on, but to thrive, to carry the gospel forward in more
innovative ways than just opening the doors on Sunday.
Even congregations that are not facing stark choices will be drafting difficult budgets for 2011. Staffs will shrink, program funds will be limited, and many will be asking: are we a people of bricks-and-mortar or a people of God?
I think this will be a searing moment of truth for many families and many religious communities.
Can a family truly find joy and meaning in just being together without piles of presents under a tree? Are we close enough, mature enough to lead our children into an appreciation of what we have as the beloved? Can children of this entitlement age handle such a counter-intuitive message?
If congregations are wise, they won't indulge in one final grand display, but will understand Christmas -- the story itself -- as a promise of hope to a world in agony.
This would be a good season to gather in simplicity and humility. God will deal with those who worship Mammon, and voters will deal with politicians wielding suffering as a weapon. This is a season for the displaced, disrupted and disappointed to make a true journey to
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of 'Just Wondering, Jesus' and founder of the Church Wellness Project. He has a website, and you can follow him on Twitter.