Friday Advent Adventures: Kids, Service, and the Season

Homeless Shelter
Image by Tobyotter via Flickr

One of the fundamental underpinnings of everything I’m trying to get at during Advent is that it’s not all about us. But it’s a tricky thing to find the right balance of service, spiritual growth, and fun. Service, as I’ve noted in the past, can actually be really fun, but only if you don’t overdo it.

Last year, Alex began noticing the men who stand beside the highway. So when we delivered the canned goods to the homeless shelter, we made sure he helped us carry them inside.

And yet he didn’t really get it. After all, everything he needs is given to him by someone else, so he couldn’t process what made those men’s lives different from his. He doesn’t really understand how anyone could actually be without a home. Early in Advent, he asked about the man who was begging beside the highway exit. Christian tried to explain it, and Alex kept listing all kinds of people to take care of the man: his mommy, his daddy, his grandparents. He never really got that that man had nowhere to go.

I think there probably are kids who “get it”—but only those who are themselves in desperate need. For those blessed with stable homes and families, however flawed and broken, the reality of poverty is too distant to process. And most of us wouldn’t want it any other way. Our instinct is to protect our children, to shield them from the ugliness that the world has to offer, until they are old enough to feel secure in their faith in God and humanity.

There are those who choose another path, who bring their kids up working among the poor, in missions around the world, in food pantries right at home. And sometimes I think those kids are being given the greatest gift of all. After all, let’s be honest about what being shielded from ugliness does to us. Look at us as adults. How often do we really process poverty? It makes us uncomfortable. We turn our heads, we refuse to make eye contact, we pretend we don’t notice them—because to acknowledge them is to tacitly admit that we have a responsibility to do something about it.

Alex is a tiger about the homeless. In the past year, he’s begun to make the first tentative connections, and if I drive past a man standing with a cardboard sign, his response is instantaneous, and outraged: “Mommy, why didn’t you give that man something?” This tells me that it’s time to move into the next stage of Advent planning—the one in which we actually make the personal connections. This is the stage I’ve been advocating since day one…and simultaneously dreading. The stage where we actually express our faith through works. Works that take us out of our comfort zone, that require us to grow.

Next week: take a meal to the homeless shelter. Not canned goods. A meal. Made by the work of our hands.

This, folks, is one more example of the way children force you to grow in your faith.

Help me out here, Advent adventurers. What concrete things can we do to serve the least among us, hand to hand, face to face, and not at a distance?