Once I got ordained, our yearly Christmas trips to see family in St. Louis were over, of course. I joked with my wife that we should start to celebrate Christmas according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar. Their Christmas falls on or around January 6th. This meant we could not only still celebrate Christmas with out of town relatives (a few of whom actually are Greek Orthodox) but we could fly on the cheaper fares after the holiday and buy our gifts during the after-Christmas sales!
I was kidding, but there are times when I wish we could uncouple the religious observation of Christ's birth from the secular Bacchanalia that Christmas has become in our culture. I needn't go on and on about how hard it is to get in the proper mood for Advent when everywhere and through every form of media we are being urged to buy stuff—clothes, entertainment systems, computers, phones, cars, movie tickets to blockbusters—for family members, friends, coworkers, yourself. And every group you or your spouse belong to is having a Christmas or holiday party for you to attend. Small wonder only 3 people came to the midweek Advent service this last Wednesday.
Actually this illustrates what I think is the real problem of why church attendance is dropping off. We have a lot more competition today. When I was a kid, stores were closed on Sunday as were most bars. Sunday morning TV was boring and there were only 3 channels. And we had no video tapes or games or internet to entertain us. The main competition to worship was sleeping in.
Today nothing is closed on Sunday. In fact, my biggest problem in getting a secular job a few years ago was finding one that would let me consistently take Sunday off so I could lead worship. Heck, most jobs wouldn't even allow me to simply come in later on Sundays. The world makes you choose between working or making others work on Sunday.
Advent is a minor penitential season. We are preparing for the coming of Jesus and so we are supposed to examine ourselves and get ourselves ready spiritually to receive him. A lot people interpret this to mean you must give up things. To me it is more meaningful to take on a spiritual practice and any giving up is therefore a result of making room for that discipline. May I suggest for this Advent season getting serious about taking time to pray and read your Bible? All you need to give up is the time you would otherwise be contributing to the frenzied madness of the world.
I would suggest reading a gospel. At this point in December, you could read 1 chapter of Mark a day and be done by Christmas. Mark is the shortest and fastest moving of the gospels. If you need commentary, go to my blog. I'm going through Mark right now. Mark doesn't have any nativity scenes in it but you'll get those at the Christmas Eve service. It will get through all the major teachings of Jesus and events of his life. If you wish, you can also read the Messianic psalms (2, 8, 16, 22, 34, 35, 40, 41, 45, 68, 69, 109, 110, and 118). Add Isaiah chapters 11 and 53 and you can easily pair up these prophetic passages with the 16 chapters of Mark you'll be reading.
If you want some extra-biblical reading as well, get J.B. Phillips' book Your God is Too Small. In Part 1, Phillips, an acquaintance of C.S. Lewis, examines more than a dozen inadequate and destructive ways of looking at God. In Part 2, he goes about constructing an adequate picture of God and then sees if anyone out there is a good fit. It is a wonderful affirmation of Jesus being the best candidate for God around. You can get the book for less than $11 or for your Kindle or Kindle app for less than $9.
If you have more time, you might want to read Dorothy L. Sayers excellent play cycle, The Man Born to Be King, which she wrote as radio plays for the BBC. Not only are the plays good but her notes at the beginning of each play have a wealth of insights into Jesus and the Twelve. They also deal with how she stayed true to the Bible and what we know about the time and still created good drama. Unfortunately there is no Kindle version yet but you can find good inexpensive paperback copies.
For getting kids into an Advent mood, you could read them the Narnia Chronicles. While they are fast reads for adults, you can limit them to a chapter a night and finish the first, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by Christmas. For older children you can easily read each in two sections and get through the whole series before Christmas Eve. If you have no children, read them for yourself. As always, the books are better than the movies.
For prayers, may I suggest starting with any of the prayers found on pages 814 through 844 in the Book of Common Prayer and 72 through 87 in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book. There's a wealth of prayers for just about any situation you can think of. Then pray for a troubled nation mentioned in the news and pray for its people suffering from war, famine, or any other disaster. This is a good way to open up your awareness of the universal reach and concerns of the church. Pray for those Christians who still face persecution, prosecution, imprisonment and death for their faith.
Pray for yourself. Sometimes we are timid in asking God to help us personally. If it concerns you, it concerns God. Ask him to take away your anxiety and fear and give you the strength and clarity of mind to face the issue itself, rather than get tangled up in and paralyzed by your emotions over it. Pray for peace, which is to say, well-being for yourself and all others affected by the problem.
Thank God. Gratitude is important to physical as well as mental health. Thank God for at least 3 things in your life, including persons, every day. They can be big or small. Thank him for the challenges you face. A recent study showed that stress is most harmful if it is thought of as stress. If you see a situation as a challenge or opportunity to achieve something, it will do a lot less damage than if you concentrate on the stress it may cause. So thank God for the opportunity to exercise your faith, to truly understand what others have gone through, to trust in him fully and discover the riches of his grace and to make a really determined go at beating the odds. Thank him for the fact that his love does not depend on how well we do but upon his goodness and faithfulness.
Finish with a prayer of recommitment to following Jesus. There are several in the pages I've mentioned. My favorite is the prayer attributed to St. Francis.
So carve out a mini-Sabbath everyday. Step out of the mad pace of this world and into the timelessness of the kingdom of God. Prepare your heart and mind to receive the King, who was and who is and who is to come.