Advent: A Time to Slow Down and Listen Up

The long lines of Black Friday have finally gone down but the blitz of the hyper-commercialized holiday season is just revving up. This period of time from Thanksgiving to Christmas has become the “busy” season. There are trees to decorate, parties to attend, relatives to visit, gifts to buy, and cards to send.  The frantic pace is exhausting and if we are not careful, Christmas will have come and gone with nary a “Silent Night.”

Is there any way to slow down the clock and adjust the volume so that we can really experience the peace, love, and joy of the season?  For those who long to reclaim the holidays as holy days, Advent can be a meaningful and refreshing approach to Christmas.  As a devotional season of preparation and reflection, Advent can help us to organize our thoughts and priorities in ways that highlight the mystical wonder of the Christ child’s birth.

During my early years as a pastor my journey toward Christmas changed drastically when I was introduced to the colors and candles of Advent.  Mission-driven Christians who live in a market-driven culture need the reflective disciplines of Advent to help us recognize and avoid stealth forces like materialism, busyness, and greed, a trio of fickle Grinches who aim to steal the real gifts of the season and replace them with superficial slogans and glamorous counterfeits.

Advent beckons us to take the road less traveled en route to Christmas. When our days are seasoned with prayer and saturated with messianic hope, we will inevitably focus on the story of Christmas more than the stuff of Christmas.  Advent delivers us from the busy quest and the relentless anxiety of meeting materialistic expectations as it calls us to a deeper faith, a rich spiritual communion that exceeds the buzz of shallow commercialism.

In our times of Advent worship we will re-visit the prophets, re-read the gospels, sing the carols, and light the candles that remind us of peace, hope, love, and joy. If we dare to journey through this season at a slower pace with ears wide open, we may sense the pre-natal anxiety of Mary and Joseph, catch the scent of rustic shepherds, see the brightness of the Christmas star, and hear both the sounds of Angels singing and the sobs of Rachel weeping.

Then, without the props of clamor and clutter, we may discover that we are more than ready to follow Christ from the cradle to the cross and beyond.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Gratitude Enriches Life

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. And either in our morning devotional time, or the prayer before the meal, we will give thanks for our many blessings.

As one of our treasured holidays, Thanksgiving is a day set aside, not only to give thanks, but to remind us of the ongoing importance 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 proposes 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.”

As we grow in faith, we may discover that choosing a disposition of gratitude enriches life in more ways than we have previously imagined. 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 gratitude encourages me and others around me.  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 trumps 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 detailed report on 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.

Ultimately, gratitude 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.

With good reason, the scripture encourages us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” For the believer, thanksgiving is not just a day of feasting and festivity. Choosing an attitude of gratitude is a daily discipline, a personal practice that gradually and steadily transforms us from the inside out.

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola.)