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Daniel Vestal: Attentiveness at Advent

The executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship reflects on spiritual practices that help him experience holy moments in the busyness of Advent and Christmas.

iStock/Abacus

December 6, 2011

“Where have we discerned God at work in our midst?”

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship considers this question at the end of each monthly staff meeting. This time of reflection and sharing is usually the highlight of the gathering.

After listening to lengthy reports and receiving tedious information, we as a staff can lose contact with the spiritual dimension of our work. This simple question, and the profound responses it elicits, lightens our hearts and reconnects us with our higher purpose.

“I wonder if we realize how privileged we are to work in an environment where this kind of experience can occur?” a colleague recently asked me.

The answer is probably not.

Though it is sad to say, Christians can easily take for granted the opportunity both to experience and then to recount holy moments and divine encounters. We can become numb or dull even though we are surrounded by the sacred. This is especially true during the season of Advent, and it is especially true for those of us who are faith leaders serving in denominations, Christian institutions and congregations.

My experience, both as pastor in a local congregation and now for the past 15 years as a denominational executive, is that I can become fatigued and even cynical because of the demands I face in the seasons of Advent and Christmas. The tyranny of responsibility and routine can rob me of wonder, joy and gladness at the very time when my heart should be full.

What am I to do? What spiritual practices might help me be attentive during Advent and Christmas?

Pray like a monk. God is always speaking, always taking the initiative, always seeking to commune and communicate with us.

Are we listening? Are we taking the time to listen to the still, small voice within us, to the sound of glory in the heavens, to the instructions that are in Scripture, to the Christ that dwells in the community of believers, to the whispers and whimperings of God in the suffering?

Listening at a deep level requires us to set a rule and rhythm for our life that includes silence and solitude as well as communal Scripture and song.

We practice the presence in all things and at all times because we believe God is in “administrivia” just as in the washing of pots and pans.

Study like a scholar. I have profited through the years by tackling a major theological work during Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.

I intentionally avoid the familiar. Rather, I have tried to work my way through a theologian or thinker who would help me contemplate the mystery and marvel of my faith.

This exercise has not been to help me become a better preacher (although I need all the help I can get). Neither has it been an effort to produce some paper or article that I could later publish or use in my leadership role. The purpose is to deepen and broaden my understanding of the gospel.

I need the provocation of someone outside my tradition or comfort zone to challenge me. I need the rigor of scholarship to keep me from slipping into sentimentality. I need teachers to help me love God with my mind, especially during Advent and Christmas.

Play like a child. It is of course easier to do this if you already have children or grandchildren in your family. But even then it is possible to “delegate” play to someone else and not engage in the carefree exercise of laughter, fun and frivolity.

Playful “unknowing” can lead to knowing. Simple pleasures like singing and dancing inspire creativity and energy.

Keep records like a scribe. Through the years I have kept a journal. Though I am not a slave to it, I have found that it helps me to regularly recount and record my life experiences.

During Advent and Christmas I pay more careful attention to this exercise. Perhaps it’s because these seasons coincide with the end of a calendar year and the beginning of another. Perhaps it’s because I have been with family and friends and am more aware of my blessings.

But this I know: I am more conscious of time, as both kronos and kairos, during Advent. I tend to pay more attention to the evidence of providence in my life and in the world. I journal in the present, and read journals from the past, to reflect on the goodness and grace of God.

In the prayer and study and play and writing, I am both humbled and blessed.