We are heading into what for many church planters is the busiest time of the year. Halloween, All Saints Day, Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas are almost here. What is meant to be an exciting celebration of the awe and wonder of Christ’s coming in human form to dwell amongst us, has instead become a season of overwork, exhaustion, and burn out. Added to that this year is the burden of our heavy hearts reacting to the devastation in Puerto Rico from hurricane Maria, the shooting in Las Vegas, earthquakes in Mexico and so many other disasters around the world. We might be getting ready to sing Joy to the world, but our spirits are not really joyful and even at the best of times it is hard for us to enter into the awe and wonder of the seasons.
Unfortunately, research also suggests that we are awe deprived. We spend more time working and commuting and less time in nature, involved in art and music or with other people, the main situations that invoke awe and wonder. How do we prepare and enable our congregations to really celebrate with awe and wonder the coming of Christ and the impact he has on our world?
Here are some suggestions for instilling a good dose of awe into your congregation this holiday season:
1. Cultivate Silence
The first key to preserving awe and wonder in our lives is to allow for silence, not the silence that comes from an absence of noise, but silentium the silence of attentiveness towards God which we enter into as we make space for and pay attention to our loving, awe inspiring God. It is the place where we find breathing space for our souls and allow our imaginations to flourish.
It was the contemplative practice of lectio divina with its encouragement to a listening kind of silence that opened my soul to awe and wonder once more. This is a very ancient prayer technique practice once widespread in Christianity. It is becoming popular once again as it draws us into the presence of God in an awe inspiring, listening way that enables us to discover an underlying spiritual rhythm in our daily life.
Lectio invites us to sit quietly in the presence of God, deliberately shutting out the distractions of inner and outer noise. It encourages us to relish and savor not just the meaning of the words of the scriptures we read but also the new and inspiring revelations of God they can bring to every day. It invites us to center ourselves on God, read scripture and listen contemplatively for what God’s spirit might say to us through our listening.
2. Get out into nature.
Nothing stirs our imaginations or inspires us with awe like nature. Encourage your congregations to enter into the outdoor celebrations of the season. I love to gather autumn leaves and decorate them with words of faith and inspiration for the Thanksgiving table. Or you might like to plan a candlelight walk in your local park or forest during Advent, or sit on the beach and watch the sunset while you tell the story of Christ’s birth and imagine the wonder of the heavenly angels bursting into the earthly realm singing joy to the world.
3. Take notice of the small beautiful things around you.
At Christmas we are often overwhelmed by the mass of goods we are encouraged to buy and consume. Encourage your congregations to reflect on the memories and memorabilia of Christmas past, those small and seemingly insignificant objects that make the holidays special. Cards, family photos and ornaments can form foci for attentive reflection and awe-inspiring moments.
4. Seek out what gives you goose bumps.
Awe can be triggered by an unexpected smile, a helping hand on the bus, a mural on a wall. Think about what gives you goose bumps and talk to your congregations and families about what takes their breath away during Thanksgiving and Christmas and look for those triggers around you. Discuss ways that these experiences could be nurtured and highlighted.
5. See the world differently.
For those who live in the Northern hemisphere the holidays conjure up images of snowy landscapes, Christmas carols by the fire and nativity scenes at church. For me growing up in Australia it is about BBQs on the beach, long family vacations and hot summer days. We all need different perspectives in order to keep the story of Christmas alive and awe inspiring. Encourage your congregations to read about holiday traditions in other countries, or to walk with a child through the Christmas tree lot and marvel at their perceptions and curiosity. Or indulge in some holiday baking and close your eyes and rejoice in the beauty of touch and smell.
6. Slow down and take notice.
Tom and I attend a performance of the Messiah each year just before Christmas. Listening to this wonderful music together is a wonderful way to drink in the wonder of Christmas once more. Or you might like to take a day off from the season’s festivities and go away for a silent retreat.
What inspires you with awe when you think about the birth of Christ? How do you feel you could encourage your congregation to discover this awe once more?
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