Good Options for Online Advent Devotionals

by Barry Howard

Devotional reading, contemplation, and prayer are disciplines that nurture our spiritual health in all seasons. Advent, however, is a prime season for deepening or re-igniting one’s devotional life. And if you opt to go “paperless,” there are many excellent Advent devotional resources available online.

During my high school years, the student ministry at my home church challenged us to begin the practice of a daily “quiet time.” Since that time, my personal devotional time has been a primary catalyst for spiritual growth and direction.

Across the years, however, that seedling notion of a “quiet time” has emerged into an early morning ritual which centers on inspirational reading, prayer, and reflection. And the resources I utilize are highly diverse, ranging from testimonial to liturgical.

Three years ago I decided to go “paperless” in my devotional time choosing to utilize online Bible apps and a variety of e-resources for my devotional time. Online resources are especially helpful during holiday travels because the resources can be accessed on any internet computer or smart device including laptops, tablets, and smartphones.   Going paperless also keeps my desktop a lot less cluttered whether I am at home or in my office.

Most online devotional sites provide complimentary access, and the costs are covered through donations or advertising revenue. And perhaps most importantly, like any electronic communication, e-devotionals save paper and are friendly to the environment.

As I began preparing for Advent this year, I previewed a few good resources to share with my congregation and to use in my own personal devotional time. I wanted to find resources that are easily accessible, theologically sound, and culturally relevant.

Like other online devotional resources, Advent E-Devotions may be posted by churches, missional organizations, or individuals. A few of the devotional sites invite you to register your email address and they will send a daily devotional directly to your inbox. Other sites have corresponding “apps” that you can download making access easier on your mobile devices. And all online sites can be bookmarked or added to your favorites list for ease of access.

Here are a few examples of online Advent devotional options that you might find helpful:

Local churches often provide links to their Advent Devotional Booklets. For example, the Advent Guide at my church is compiled by our Children’s Ministry and is posted at http://fbcp.org/Uploaded/16-Advent.pdf. These booklets can usually be accessed as a PDF file, or downloaded to a tablet, Kindle, or E-reader.

D365.org is sponsored by Passport Camps and provides a daily Advent devotional that is appropriate for students or adults. (http://d365.org/)

Buckner International is a faith-based social service organization based in Dallas that serves hundreds of thousands of people each year across the United States and around the globe. Their Advent guide, written by assorted authors, can be downloaded at http://www.buckner.org/christmasdevotions.

The Denison Forum on Truth and Culture provides multiple resources to equip people to “change the culture for the kingdom.” The DFTC web site offers inspirational Advent devotions that are written by Janet Denison at http://dev30.denisonforum.org/store/send/1-root/34-advent-devotional.

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary provides an Advent Devotional W-Book written by members of the seminary community. This e-book follows Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary and can be downloaded at http://www.pts.edu/devotional_1.

Sacred Space is an online prayer site provided by the Irish Jesuits. They provide a guided Advent devotional series and an Advent Retreat option at www.sacredspace.ie.

Whether you are new to the practice of a daily devotional experience or a long time practitioner, you may discover that a good Advent E-Devotion will enrich your spiritual preparation for Christmas, and ultimately deepen your celebration of the birth of the Christ.

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

Making Wise Decisions about Holiday Giving

by Barry Howard

The holiday season is here once again, and with the festivities comes multiple invitations to give to worthwhile missional causes. Determining which ones to give to can be painstaking and time consuming. Because of the multiple opportunities and solicitations that come our way, it is important that we are generous and smart in our giving.
 
Many businesses and foundations have pre-determined guidelines for determining the charitable causes to which they will make contributions. I believe it is possible for individuals and families to make both wise and generous decisions about charitable holiday giving as well, but you need a plan. At our house, we employ the following guidelines to help us filter through the requests and determine which charities, missions, and ministries will go on our Christmas list;

  1. Our first gift goes to the mission offering of our church. Throughout the year, our tithe (the first 10% of our income) goes to support the ministries of our church. Primarily, this is an act of obedience in response to what we believe the Bible teaches. Through the years, however, we have observed that the cumulative projects of a local church make a significant impact on improving individual lives. So, at Christmas we give an additional gift to the missions offering to support the work of missionaries around the globe.
  2. We tend to give to organizations that are faith-based and focused on assisting the “least of these,” those who are disconnected, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised.
  3. We aim to give to organizations that have low overhead and administrative costs. We don’t want to give to an organization that exists to sustain itself. We want to give to organizations that provide a monumental service to people in need or that serve as conduits to get funds and resources to people in need.
  4. We give to organizations that have demonstrated accountability, those who have a reputable board of advisers and a reporting mechanism to let us know where previous gifts have been used.
  5. We determine not to do “guilt giving” or to respond to “arm-twisting requests.” We are motivated more by the missional pulse of a group or project than by the emotional plea of the one making the request.
  6. We do not give directly to persons on the street, at intersections, or interstate ramps. Our experience is that people are most effectively helped through missional organizations and relationships. (We do offer to help get persons on the street to our mission center for assistance, or we offer to buy them a meal, but we do not give money, simply because of the high rate of manipulation and addiction among regular panhandlers.)
  7. We recognize that some good organizations will be left out of our giving plan. There are thousands of organizations, ministries, and causes that are trustworthy, accountable, and effective, but we cannot support all of them. There are hundreds we would like to support, but our resources are limited. So, we choose a few of those organizations or projects that fit our criteria and we give to them cheerfully.
  8. We give ourselves a matching challenge that helps us to give generously and according to how we have been blessed. We try to give an amount equal to the total of what we spend on gifts for family and friends. For example, if we spend $1200 on gifts, we will also give a matching $1200 to missions or charitable causes. Other friends of ours gift an amount equal to their season tickets for college football or an amount equivalent to their annual dues at the country club.
  9. We have transitioned to electronic giving, if the recipient organization provides a secure web portal for contributions. E-giving transfers our gift to the organization more quickly and it gives us an immediate receipt of the contribution.
  10. We re-evaluate who we are giving to each year and do not automatically give this year to the same groups as last year.

As we grow and learn better stewardship practices, we realize that we are not liable for supporting every worthy cause. However, we are accountable to God for the resources placed within our care. We have the privilege, especially during the holidays, of generously discerning from among many worthwhile causes those projects and organizations we will support.

As you plot and plan your holiday giving, don’t be overwhelmed with guilt for not supporting every single cause. Be generous and smart. Give to those causes that have a proven track record of ministering to spiritual, physical, and emotional needs.

Choosing an Attitude of Gratitude

by Barry Howard

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.” During my college years, I read a little book entitled, Agaperos, written by Grady Nutt, a unique Baptist minister who was called the “Prime Minister of Humor.” In that book, as in his sermons, Grady emphasized the importance of choosing “an attitude of gratitude.”

As we grow in our walk with the Lord, 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.)

A Prayer for Veteran’s Day 2016

by Barry Howard

God of faith and freedom, on this Veteran’s Day we are thankful for all the men and women, past and present, who have served or are currently serving in the various branches of our nation’s military services.

We are grateful for the privilege of living in a diverse country that persistently thrives on the privileges and perplexities of freedom.  And we are thankful for each and every veteran who has paved the way for our unrivaled liberties, treasured 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 by highlighting the valor and courage of our veterans, we also confess our concern for the current state of our nation. We sincerely ask you to forgive our sins, even the ones we are slow to confess, 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 current leaders and the newly elected leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will embody wisdom, exercise courage, and build consensus.  And we especially pray for the men and women who currently serve in high risk areas of the world, that they will fulfill their mission effectively and return home safely and soon.

Just as you have revealed yourself to be a freedom-loving God, send us into the world to be your freedom-loving people.  And may the stories we hear and the memories we share on this Veteran’s Day inspire us to live responsibly, serve cooperatively, and sacrifice selflessly, even as we work courageously toward liberty and justice for all your children.  We pray in the name of the One who gives ultimate freedom.  Amen.

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