Choosing An Attitude of Gratitude

attitude of gratitude pic

During my college years, my faith was heavily influenced by a little book entitled, Agaperos, written by Grady Nutt. In that book, as in his sermons, Grady emphasized the importance of choosing “an attitude of gratitude.”

Many of us will be privileged to gather on Thanksgiving Day with family and friends to enjoy a bountiful feast and hearty conversations around the table. As one of our treasured holidays, Thanksgiving is a day set aside, not only to give thanks, but to rekindle in us a spirit of gratitude. In I Thessalonians 5: 16-18, Paul encourages believers to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Elie Wiesel contended that, “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.”

Experiencing and expressing gratitude throughout the ever-changing seasons of life has a way of re-shaping our perspective and re-formatting our attitude. In my journey of faith, I am discovering that a disposition of gratitude enriches life in several ways.

First, When I am frustrated and tend to see the glass half empty rather than half full, I find that the practice of “counting my blessings” infuses me with encouragement, and that encouragement spills over into the lives of others. Gratitude has a way of refocusing my attention on the positive and reminding me of how blessed I am.

Gratitude also promotes good health. That does not mean that gratitude brings instantaneous healing, nor does it make us immune from viruses or exempt from accidents. But a heart of gratitude promotes spiritual, emotional, and physical health in at least a couple of ways. First, gratitude serves as the antidote for toxic negativity and complaint, cleansing our perspective and renewing our focus. And second, gratitude seems to put us in a positive frame of mind which allows our body to better produce and release antibodies and restorative enzymes that work to promote health and wholeness.

A study of the psychology of gratitude is found in Robert Emmons’ book, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. In his research at the University of California-Berkeley, Dr. Emmons found that those who practice grateful thinking “reap emotional, physical and interpersonal benefits.” The study revealed that individuals who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, generally feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future. This led Dr. Emmons to conclude that gratitude is both a personal choice and healthy response to our life experiences.

Gratitude ultimately inspires me to serve. Gratitude is not about counting my blessings just to make me a happier consumer. Genuine gratitude motivates me to share my blessings. For me, the quality of life is best measured, not by how much I have, but how effectively I use resources I have been given to serve. Those who serve out of guilt serve for a short while. Those who serve out of gratitude serve for a lifetime.

Choosing an attitude of gratitude is a daily discipline that enriches life. Henri Nouwen wrote, “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”

With good reason, the scripture encourages us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Although we do not always get to choose our circumstances, we can always choose our attitude. Not just today, but every day, cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

 

Advertisements

Let the Counting Begin!

count your blessings

As a child growing up in the rural church, I remember singing the old hymn “Count Your Blessings,” written by Johnson Oatman Jr. in 1897. The words of the song urged us to “Count your blessings, name them one by one; And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

At the Mt. View Baptist Church where I was raised, we sang that song all throughout the year, and not just at Thanksgiving. Inadvertently, this taught me that giving thanks is an ongoing daily discipline, not limited to a holiday season. In fact, I Thessalonians 5:18 encourages us to “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Thanksgiving is a time of the year set aside for us to re-charge our gratitude by literally counting our blessings, a time to take an inventory of our resources, relationships, and opportunities.

I have discovered that thankfulness is not necessarily a default disposition, but a perspective on life that must be cultivated. William Faulkner describes such gratitude as “a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” So, this week, in a deeper sort of way, as a spiritual exercise, I will count and name my blessings.

The practice of counting our blessings has many benefits. First, counting our blessings enables us to treasure our blessings. Sometimes we take blessings for granted and we overlook them. Taking a personal inventory of your blessings brings your blessings into your conscious awareness, sort of like discovering a forgotten garment hidden in the closet, and returning it to the active rotation of your wardrobe.

Second, counting our blessings reminds us to use our blessings wisely. Our blessings are our real earthly treasures, and we are called to be good stewards or managers of these assets, carefully investing them in ways that help us to fulfill our God-given mission.

Third, counting our blessings encourages us to share our blessings generously. Most blessings were not intended to flow into our lives, but to flow through our lives into the lives of others. We are not human reservoirs created to preserve our blessings; we are designed to be human conduits, channels through which God’s blessings flow into the lives of others, especially those in need.

Thanksgiving is time to take a count of our blessings, and then let that inventory inspire us toward sensible stewardship, cheerful generosity, and faithful living.

Through our feasts and our festivities let us celebrate our many blessings and then let us live our days serving, sharing, and growing. Let the counting begin!

(Barry Howard is retired pastor who lives in Pensacola, Florida. He now serves as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.)

Ten Simple Blessings I Never Want to Take for Granted

 

Life’s simple pleasures should never be taken for granted. During this week designated to remind us to count our blessings,  I will certainly be giving thanks for faith, family, friends, and freedom.  But there are a few things popped up in my gratitude inventory that some folks might label as minor blessings.  For me, however, they are a big deal. Some are simple pleasures, others are personal preferences, and a few are stress relievers. These ten represent a longer list of blessings that add richness and meaning to life, serendipitous gifts that I never want to take for granted:

  • A multi-colored sunrise over the bay or sunset over the Gulf.
  • Hugs from nieces and nephews.
  • A timely phone conversation with a friend.
  • Oatmeal laced with honey and almonds on a cool morning.
  • Hot coffee any day of the year.
  • Home-made cards or written notes of encouragement.
  • A song that resonates within my soul.
  • A refreshing nap.
  • An occasional walk for about 18 holes.
  • The privilege of dedicating, encouraging, baptizing, marrying, and even eulogizing others…walking alongside them through all of the seasons of life.

This week, as we give thanks for the big things, let’s also take time to give thanks for the little things that bring joy, fulfillment, and affirmation to our lives.  What’s on your list?

A Prayer for Veteran’s Day 2017

veterans day

On this Veteran’s Day, O God, we are thankful for all the men and women, past and present, who have honorably served or are currently serving in the various branches of our nation’s armed forces.

We are especially grateful for the privilege of living in a land that is rich in resources and resourceful people from “sea to shining sea.”  And we are thankful for every veteran who has paved the way for the unrivaled liberties that allow us to freely make choices about our work, our worship, our political convictions, and our lifestyle. We are forever indebted to these past and present veterans who risked life and limb in the pursuit and protection of these freedoms.

As we observe this Veteran’s Day focused on memories and stories of the past, we are also aware of the challenges and uncertainties confronting us today. As we think about our present predicament, we humbly ask you to forgive our sin and to heal our land. You tell us in an ancient but relevant scripture that, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)

On this day, we pray for the leaders of our nation, our state, and our community, that they will rise above the divisive rhetoric of partisanship that they may lead with wisdom, courage, and integrity. And we pray for the men and women who are currently deployed to high risk areas, that they will fulfill their mission courageously and effectively, and return home safely and soon.

Just as we have come to know you as a freedom-loving God, send us into the world to be your freedom-loving people. And may every story and every memory inspire us to live responsibly, serve generously, and sacrifice selflessly, as we pursue liberty and justice for all your children. We pray in the name of One who gives freedom that makes us “free indeed.” Amen.

(Barry Howard serves as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches, and a pastoral counselor with the Faith and Hope Center. He is member of the Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors and recently retired as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida)

Healthy Self-Care: An Essential Discipline for a Pastor

healthy pastor

by Barry Howard

A pastor may be deeply committed, extraordinarily faithful, highly educated, and extremely hard-working, but for a pastor to be effective and durable, a pastor must practice healthy self-care.

Self-care includes developing and maintaining good physical, spiritual and mental health practices. While these three areas of wellness are intertwined and inseparable, in my own life and the experience of many of my colleagues, I recognize that more attention has been given to physical and spiritual health, and mental health is often neglected, causing all three to diminish.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Every human being experiences highs and lows in mental health. Although some forms of mental illness are genetic, other expressions of mental illness may be related to circumstances or body chemistry, and may be preemptively avoided or proactively addressed by practicing good mental hygiene.

A common, but naïve misconception is that pastors, or persons with strong religious faith, are exempt from mental distress. The Apostle Paul is noted for his courageous ministry but he confessed, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (II Corinthians 11:28 NIV).

In his book, Surviving the Stained-Glass Jungle, veteran pastor Dr. Bill Self contends that, “Self-care is not destructive self-indulgence, but rather it is being a steward of some rather special gifts— the human body and soul, along with the capacity to bring joy to others as well as to experience it.”

Those in every vocation experience varying levels of stress, distress, and duress. However, because the pastoral task requires remarkable investment in the lives of others, a pastor who neglects mental hygiene can gradually slip into a state of melancholy or emotional chaos, and then compound the dilemma by ignoring the symptoms for fear of stigmatizing his or her ministry.

I have observed at least five areas that commonly place stress on a pastor’s mental and emotional health:

  1. Unrealistic expectations– These expectations can be real or perceived, and they can be generated by vocal congregants or be self-imposed by a minister with a “messiah complex.”  Within most congregations there are mix of expectations that fluctuate between market-driven goals (e.g., attendance, budgets, denominational recognition) and mission-driven goals (e.g., life transformation, ministry participation, stewardship practices). The wider the gap between these two categories, the more intense the stress on the minister.
  2. Perpetual preparation– The task of perpetual preparation can be a mentally exhausting chore. Many professional public speakers have 4-5 niche speeches that they give over and over to different groups. Professors and teachers have lectures and lesson plans that are updated and revised from semester to semester but they usually follow a core curriculum. A preaching pastor is unique in that he or she is generally expected to prepare and deliver 40-50 different Sunday sermons per year to virtually the same group of people, in addition to devotionals, Bible studies, and speeches for community events.
  3. A pendulum of emotional encounters- A minister deals with grief, grace, and everything in between on a daily basis. Perhaps more than any other vocation, a pastor regularly moves in and out of situations with polarizing and intense emotions such as death and birth, divorce and marriage, perversion and conversion, and conflict and resolution. If a pastor is not careful, the residual emotions from these encounters will linger and intermingle creating either emotional apathy or spiritual neuropathy.
  4. Problem people- Not to be confused with people with problems, problem people are unusually high maintenance individuals who consume an exorbitant amount of a minister’s time with petty complaints or unconstructive criticisms. Marshall Shelley refers to these “well-intentioned dragons” as “sincere, well-meaning saints, but they leave ulcers, strained relationships, and hard feelings in their wake.”
  5. Confidentiality cache- Because the pastoral role is not only prophetic but also priestly, a pastor is entrusted with a lot of confidential information that is locked away into a pastor’s mental storage. The volume of this information can become a heavy emotional weight if it remains in a pastor’s mental inbox and is not appropriately archived.

In light of these factors, how can a pastor preserve good health and promote longevity in ministry by practicing good mental and emotional hygiene? Each pastor has to identify and adopt hygienic habits that fit his or her context and personality. Here are some practices I found to be helpful in my own pastoral routine:

  • Establish and maintain a consistent prayer and devotional life.
  • Maintain a relationship with a counselor or trustworthy conversation partner, outside of your church.
  • Convene a small accountability group, establish a confidentiality covenant with them, and meet with them monthly.
  • Read regularly in multiple genres including biography, history, and fiction.
  • Pay attention to diet, especially limiting intake of sugar, caffeine, and other foods that can trigger emotional swings.
  • Develop a regimen of moderate physical exercise.
  • Follow a consistent routine for sleep and rest.
  • Periodically disconnect from the work of the church, especially from mental labor (problem solving, conflict management), cellphone calls, and social media.
  • Have an annual physical examination, as well as eye examination and dermatology screening.
  • Participate in a peer network of pastors who convene with a covenant of confidentiality, and who vent and vision together.
  • Learn to delegate, equipping and enabling others to employ their spiritual gifts.
  • Be alert to seasons when your mental distress leads to dysfunction, manifested by ongoing and overwhelming symptoms of depression, chronic anxiety, paranoia, and/or insomnia. Immediately enlist the care of a medical professional. To procrastinate getting care prolongs the process of recovery.

Life in the stained-glass jungle has unique rewards and challenges. Self-care is absolutely essential. Bill Self reminds us that, “It takes courage to take care of yourself. One of the hallmarks of a professional is the ability to keep healthy— physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You must take responsibility for yourself and not expect others to take the initiative to care for you.”

Practicing good self-care can strengthen and lengthen a pastor’s ministry, empowering a pastor to be mentally sharp, emotionally perceptive, and spiritually grounded in all seasons.

(Barry Howard lives in Pensacola, Florida and serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches.)

September 11: Looking Back, Living Forward

One World Trade Ctr

Yesterday, as Amanda and I visited Ground Zero, my mind returned to where I was 16 years ago.

On September 11, 2001 I was sitting in the home of one of our members meeting with a widow to plan a memorial service for her husband who had passed away the previous evening. As we were finalizing the date and time for the service, a family member interrupted us and asked me to step into the kitchen. There she pointed to the television and began to cry as she said, “I thought you needed to know what is happening in New York.”

My heart sank as I watched the replay of the first plane crashing into the tower one. I returned to the living room, led the family in prayer, and prayed for our nation, not knowing that more attacks were looming.

I quickly made my way back to our church campus, which was only a couple of blocks away. I found our entire staff gathered around the tv in my study, and the second tower was hit just as I entered. After a few moments of shock and tears, our team kicked into ministry mode, shared an emotional time of prayer, and began strategizing about ways we could minister to our church and community in light of these events.

Like every community around the country, members of our congregation had family members and friends who lived in New York or Washington, or who were traveling in that area, or who were serving in the armed forces who would eventually be responding to these horrid acts of terror. Eventually, it seemed that everyone was connected by friendship or kinship to someone directly affected by the attacks of that fateful day.

Although those events occurred fifteen years ago today, our individual and collective memories are still vivid and painful. We remember where we were when we heard the news. We remember bystanders fleeing from the scene and first responders rushing toward the scene. We remember gathering in churches, chapels, temples, and synagogues to pray.

What have we learned about ourselves and our world since 9/11? In particular, as followers of Jesus, what are the proactive steps we can take to be “salt” and “light” in a post 9/11 world?

Our greatest security is grounded in our faith in God. Psalm 46:1 teaches us that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in our time of trouble.” Our faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, disaster, or even acts of terrorism. But our faith does serve as a compass to help us navigate the most difficult and challenging circumstances of life.

Refuse to live in fear. We cannot allow fear to dissuade us from fulfilling our mission. One of the goals of terrorism is to invoke a life-disrupting fear. II Timothy 1:7 reminds us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Obviously we need to be wise, savvy, and circumspect at home and abroad. However, we cannot let the fear of the unknown keep us from going where we are called to go and doing what we are called to do.

Avoid responding to terrorism with terrorism. We cannot allow terrorists to provoke us into behaving like terrorists. In other words, you cannot defeat terrorism by conducting acts of terrorism. Followers of Jesus are called to respond to adversaries with the spirit of Jesus.

Express gratitude to first responders. The events of 9-11 gave to many of us a deeper appreciation for the valiant service of firemen, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders. As a pastor and community leader, I want to affirm those who serve as first responders and to encourage others to consider these vocational tracks as honorable career opportunities.

Learn the basic tenets of other faiths like Islam. A huge challenge for those unfamiliar with the religions of the world is learning to distinguish between radical Islamic groups, Jihadists for example, and mainstream Muslims who not only reject methods of terrorism, but who also must contend with it. Just like radical “Christian” groups such as the Branch Davidians and the Peoples Temple do not represent the majority of Christians, members of Al Queda, ISIS, and Boka Haram do not represent the vast majority of the Islamic world.

Be careful not to become xenophobic. Xenophobia is the fear of people from different countries, cultures, or ethnicities. Just because most of the terrorists of 9/11 were from the Middle East does not mean that everyone who wears the common wardrobe of a Middle Easterner, such as a burka or a turban, is to be suspected of terrorism.
Pray for our president and national leaders. The task of making decisions during turbulent times is stressful and tedious. No military or political leader in history has faced the type or magnitude of threat posed by terrorist groups. No matter your preferred political party, it is imperative that people of faith pray for those who lead our nation to exercise wisdom and discernment.

One year following the 9/11 attacks, I was asked by a local newspaper reporter, “How has the world changed since September 11, 2001?” The response I gave in 2002 is still relevant in 2017:
I believe the world has changed in so many ways that the majority of those changes are still being realized and processed.   From my perspective, it seems that our nation is going through the various stages of grief (shock, denial, depression, panic, guilt, resentment, and hope), and like any normal family system, not everyone is in the same stage.   Because the assault on 9/11 was a multi-dimensional attack on the spiritual, social, psychological, and economic fabric of our country, our sense of loss is more complex. Not only were thousands of lives lost, but so were many of our presuppositions, especially those regarding personal safety, economic security, and religious superiority. I hope and pray that we will emerge as individuals who are more circumspect, more patient, less acquisitive, and more spiritually grounded than we have previously demonstrated.

(Barry Howard is a retired pastor who lives in Pensacola, Florida.)

Keeping “JESUS” Right-Side UP

Jesus 1
Just prior to closing the door, I noticed it. “JESUS” was upside down.

A few days ago, an unexpected wave of emotion swept over me as I was preparing to leave the pastor’s study of First Baptist Church for the final time as the senior pastor. With an open Bible, an inquiring mind, and a listening ear, I have spent countless hours in this room over the past twelve years. This room has served well as a place of reflection at times and a place of refuge at others. It is a place where I have offered fervent prayers and a place where I have heard gut-wrenching confessions. It is a place where I have shared generous encouragement and a place where I have uttered occasional rebuke.

This is the same study where I have prepared sermons, offered counsel, planned memorial services, prepared for baby dedications, brain-stormed with key leaders, and conferred with my trusted colleagues. This is the same study where I have laughed at times and cried at times. These walls have framed treasure memories and have witnessed countless secrets.

With the last of my personal belongings in hand, when I reached the door, I looked back to make sure I had not left anything behind. While scanning the room, I saw it. “JESUS” was upside down. So, my last act upon departing the pastor’s study on Friday was to turn “JESUS” right side up again.

Among the many plaques, trinkets, and gifts given to me across the past 12 years is a sign made of two colors of wood that highlight the name, “JESUS.” Rather than being inscribed or engraved, “JESUS” is revealed by the strategic arrangement of the contrast in wood and color.

I’m not really sure how “JESUS” got turned upside down in the first place. A member of the housekeeping staff could have inadvertently flipped the sign while dusting. I could have overturned “JESUS” in my packing frenzy. Or one of the children visiting my study last week could have reversed the upright position of “JESUS” while playing with him.

My realignment of “JESUS” became rather parabolic for my final weekend. I realized again how easy it is, despite our best intentions, for the church to turn “JESUS” upside down, misrepresenting Jesus to our community:

We turn Jesus upside down when we minimize our faith as a mere formulaic transaction. We turn Jesus upside down when we buy into consumerist Christianity. We turn Jesus upside down when we try to label Jesus as a Democrat or Republican. We turn Jesus upside down when we operate the church as a religious institution. We turn Jesus upside down when we exclude people who are unlike us. We turn Jesus upside down when we veer toward the extremes of legalism on the right or liberalism on the left. We turn Jesus upside down when we contentiously frame worship as contemporary or traditional. We turn Jesus upside down when we take his words and teachings out of context to affirm our own presuppositions. We turn Jesus upside down when we preach partisan politics from the pulpit. We turn Jesus upside down when there is a huge disparity between our words and actions. We turn Jesus upside down when we confess his Lordship but we neglect worship.

To maximize our impact and influence in the community, it is imperative for the church, from the pastor’s study to the pew,

to keep “JESUS” right side up. We turn Jesus right side up when we faithfully share the love of God in word and deed. We embody Jesus right side up when we invest time and resources in “the least of these,” the disadvantaged and underserved in our city and around the world. We proclaim Jesus right side up when we “make more space for grace.” We exemplify Jesus right side up when we leverage our diversity within the body of Christ. We present Jesus right side up when we perceive other churches to be our colleagues, not our competitors. We portray Jesus right side up when we open the doors of our church more widely than ever before, recognizing that many disconnected individuals need to walk alongside us before determining to join us on this journey of faith. We preach Jesus right side up when we refuse to give up on anyone, even those we perceive to be the most hopeless and hardcore of sinners.

And so, as I enter a new season of life and dabble in fresh ways to serve, my last action upon departing the pastor’s study and my last word from the pulpit after 39 years in ministry, is this relevant reminder to turn “JESUS” right side up in a world that is weary of an upside-down Jesus. That is our mission.

(Barry Howard is the recently retired Senior Minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)