Spiritual Practices for Advent and Christmas

Philippians  1:3-11; 4:4-9

This morning, amid the joyful heavenly bells, I want to share a few words about spiritual practices. Advent is an appropriate time to reflect on our spiritual lives.  Before the coming of Christmas as a consumer holiday, Advent was a time of prayer, fasting, and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. In the Northern hemisphere, prior to the invention of electricity the long nights and short days gave ample opportunity for reflection.

Today, of course, Advent has succumbed to commercialism.  We are told to shop till we drop whether in the mall or on-line.  We are bombarded with kitschy Christmas songs, like “Santa Baby” or the now infamous “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that truly exemplify the spirit of Christmas. Instead of reflection, we are often stressed out, numbed out, and tired out, and fearful our gifts won’t be well-received…so out come the gift cards.

It is countercultural to “pause awhile” and listen for God’s voice.  But I believe it is essential, especially in seasons of busyness and environments of stress.  Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “I have so many things to do today, that I need to take more time for prayer.”  Sounds impractical, but as that refrigerator magnet says, “prayer changes things,” and the first thing it changes is our attitude and way of looking at the events of our lives.

I can identify with the spirit of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  Unlike some of the other letters of Paul, filled with criticism, rebuke, and challenge, Paul’s words to the Christians at Philippi are filled with gratitude and affection.  Paul says God is doing a good work in their lives – in that little church in Philippi – and it will grow into a harvest of righteousness, blessing one another and the community around them.

Paul also knows that despite the good intentions and faithfulness of the Philippian church, it is easy to caught up in the worst habits of the world around us. In their case, letting the majority culture – the Roman culture of consumption, status and pleasure-seeking – draw them away from the way of Christ.  Paul is not counseling the Philippians to turn away from the world, but in the spirit of his letter to the Christians in Rome, he is cautioning, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Get your Spiritual GPS aligned and follow the path toward God.

In Philippians, Paul gives some short spiritual guideposts that can change your life.  Let’s listen to them again:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 

The words speak for themselves, but let me add a little interpretation. The keynote is joy, affirmation, gratitude, and prayer.  Joy is a way of life of life – affirming the wonder of life, the fullness of life, the amazing moment you are living in, despite life’s challenges.  Paul’s words have credibility, because he’s writing from prison with the threat of death.  Yet, he says “rejoice in God always.”

I struggle to be joyful, when I listen to the daily news, hear the foolishness of politicians, see lawn signs dotting the streets, and remember I’m 66 and not 16, but my mood changes each day, when I begin with “This is the day that God has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it.”  I say that several times each morning, and it has become a way of life. It’s not denial, but placing my worries in a larger perspective, God’s perspective, and the moral arc of the universe that will prevail in my life and the world.

Give thanks.  Each day, wake up to possibilities. Now what are we thankful for – I think I told you of the “saint” of a local church in DC. She took a walk each morning, and despite her health condition, widowhood, and challenges of life, she spent her walk, giving thanks, and noted “I’ve never run out of things to be thankful for.”  Say “thank you” to those around you – the store clerk, first responder, the person serving you at lunch.  It will transform your life – from scarcity to abundance. You will discover “when you count your blessings,” as the hymn says, “all things God has done.”

Pray about everything. This is difficult especially when we think of prayer as something pious and churchy.  Prayer is simply opening to God. An easy first step is to begin the day with – “thank you, God, Guide my steps, show me the way.”  When you’re worried, cry “help.”  When you’re confused, say “Show me what to do.”  When you’re afraid, “God show me you’re with me.” Prayer can be as natural as breathing. In fact, it is breathing.

Think about good things, positive things, helpful things, “Think on these things,”  Paul counsels. Yes, there’s trouble afoot, near and far. But, we don’t need to succumb to negativity in our words or self-talk.  Begin at home, remembering Paul’s counsel in Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Christ is here, with you, and you can say, “with Christ, I can do what’s needed to change my life and world for good today.”  Remind yourself that you are – God’s child, worthy, loved, and gifted.  You might even – if you aren’t too embarrassed –  say in the mirror, “I am the light of the world.  I will let my light shine for God.”  You are more than you can imagine, you are created in God’s image, you aren’t a mistake, you’re a blessing to everyone you meet.

Finally, take time – even if it’s just a moment – to pause and breathe deeply several times a day. You will experience peace on the busiest days, and guidance when you feel confused.

Yes, Christmas is busy, and Advent almost forgotten, but you can go through your day, walking with God, setting your Spiritual GPS on God’s highway, despite the busyness of the day experience the peace that passes understanding. Thanks be to God.