12/21/2010 11:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas When You Are Unemployed

In this happy season of Advent, we prepare for the coming of the baby Jesus on Christmas. But since the church is also a human institution, many churches are also preparing for 2011's income stream, which comes from the gifts and the tithes of our members.

Envelopes have been coming into the church with people's pledges, their estimates of what they will be able to contribute to the church in the year ahead. Based upon this, the congregation plans our ministries and our giving. So we wait for Jesus but we also wait for those pledges. It's a funny time.

There is a place on the pledge card where people can add comments, and these always get forwarded to me as the Senior Minister. And this year, as in the last two years, there is one comment I see way too often. A person will write something along the lines of, "I would like to do more for the church but I am unemployed." Or perhaps it's their spouse who is unemployed. Or in many cases, someone is underemployed, working part time on various projects, piecing together benefits and insurance.

In church, we ask for prayers for all sorts of intimate things, like upcoming surgeries, or comfort after the death of a parent, or prayers for healing of mind and body and spirit. These prayer requests give me the pulse of the congregation every week.

But very few people will ask for prayers around unemployment, or underemployment. In the western suburbs of Chicago, where the homes are spacious and the yards well kept, the stresses of financial uncertainty can seem invisible. And so the comments on the pledge cards each year are my reminder that people in the church are really struggling economically.

There has been much talk by economists about the jobless recovery. Businesses that cut back have learned to do more with fewer employees. Hotel housekeepers are expected to clean more rooms than they had to a few years ago. And never mind if their backs get injured and they take Tylenol like it's popcorn. Corporations that have started making money again are using this time to make their contracts with workers worse. Folks in our church are starting to find part time consulting work, but it remains unclear if their full time positions will every reappear, as businesses have managed to make due with less. Profits are not trickling down to the working world, and so those gifts are not trickling down to faith communities, charities and non-profits either. The jobless recovery hurts us in so many ways.

As the media focuses on crowded stores and big deals on new products, the unemployed and the underemployed can experience Advent as one big let down. In this particular Advent season they have held their breath as politicians debated their futures, and at the same time considered tax breaks for the few folks who are doing well these days.

In the walk of faith, we are not to put our trust in material things. But it doesn't mean that money doesn't matter. The ability to earn, and to provide for others, and to give to your church are blessings not to be taken fore granted. But in the meantime, we await the birth of the Christ child, who as far as I can tell, spent his adult life unemployed and somehow changed the world. Dependent upon the generosity of others, Jesus was tough on the rich, gentle with the poor, and brave in the face of injustice. This Advent, I'm particularly eager for him to get here.