Advent is a wonderful time for reflection and devotion as believers look forward to Christmas and its significance for our faith. UrbanFaith had the opportunity to have a Q & A session with Katara Washington Patton, the author of Joyous Advent: Family Christmas Devotional. The exchange is below, edited for clarity.
It is so good to have you share with UrbanFaith again and your new and relevant book. Advent is a great opportunity to reflect, be inspired, and deepen our relationship with God and others, so I’m grateful for your book.
1. A lot of people are not as familiar with Advent as some of the other major holidays such as Christmas and Easter. What is Advent and why is it important for believers?
Advent is the period leading up to the observance of our Savior’s birth–Christmas; Advent is observed during the four weeks before Christmas and normally begins the last Sunday of November. Advent means to anticipate the coming of Christ (remembering how people anticipated His birth and how we anticipate His second coming).
2. What inspired you to write a book of devotionals for this holiday season?
I love devotionals; they have been one of my main sources of growth. They are shorter readings you can do mostly every day, which increases your faith through reading and reflecting on Scripture. So, whenever I’m given the opportunity—as I was by my publisher with this book—I jump at the chance to write material that can help people grow in faith. This one particularly is for the entire family…so adults and children can learn from it.
3. You were very intentional at making this a FAMILY devotional, why is that important to you?
We know Family can mean…grandmother and child, two parents and children, auntie, uncle, big sister, etc. So I like the fact that families—whatever your definition is—can center themselves around a scripture and reading and explore its meaning, have activities to do. This can be done alone as well but it is written at a level children will understand too. I think that’s important…for my family, my child has a different Christian education than I did. I went to Sunday school every Sunday because my mom was the superintendent and my dad a teacher; today, pre-pandemic, my child was in a class at church maybe once a month or so (due to several reasons like the format of classes at our church); and now with the changes due to capacity limits and the pandemic, she’s not in a class. Where does she learn those fundamental lessons we learned? In family devotions, I hope and pray.
4. I love the format of your devotions, why did you decide to include activities as well as the traditional prayer and Scripture inspirations?
I’ve always been a person who looks at learning and even ministry from a practical stand point. If I can’t apply this lesson to my life, then it’s just words. Activities help reinforce the application of the lesson. I’m always going to look for a way to bring home the point through activities.
5. How has choosing devotion during Advent and Christmas impacted your faith journey?
I loved rediscovering many of the stories I selected: Jesus’ genealogy, Simeon and Anna, even Noah and the rainbow, Elizabeth and Mary, even Abigail and David– all to drive home the four themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. I think we need to tell these stories over and over again to remind ourselves and to teach our children of the goodness of God and the amazing faith journey we have been presented with as we journey ourselves. Utilizing these devotions can also help us connect the faith stories within the Bible to our own faith story based on our belief in our savior’s birth.
6. What advice would you give to our audience who may be trying to grow in their faith?
Other than read my books?! Lol. Honestly, read your Bible and supplemental material of your choosing faithfully. If you find one devotional or book isn’t giving you enough or inspiring you to read regularly, find another. There are so many different formats we can utilize for Bible reading and devotions that you can find something that is speaking to you in the moment. Being consistent is key. I enjoy waking up and having that time with God; I understand it may be car time for another or bed time or lunch time for others—but the consistent practice of carving out that time to study, reflect, and pray has been my saving grace.
Joyous Advent: Family Christmas Devotional is available everywhere books are sold.
As you lay in your bed at night, maybe you feel a sharp, persistent pain in your chest that will not leave. Or perhaps it is a sunken feeling in your stomach that feels like you swallowed a golf ball. For another person, it might be an inability to click the off-switch on your thoughts. Like waves, one thought continually crashes over the other until, eventually, it feels like you’re drowning in an ocean of thoughts that you cannot escape. Still, for another, the opposite may be true. Instead of a flood of thoughts, there is an obsession or a constant preoccupation with a single thought. Whatever it feels like for you, we have all felt it. It’s worry. It is one of many things that God warns us against, and yet, countless people still wrestle with this feeling on a daily basis.
For me, worrying was a way of life. In the morning, I would lie awake in bed and work myself up over all that I had to do that day. As I dwelled on the what-ifs, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as it beat faster and faster. What if I fail? What if the money never comes in? What if I drop the ball? What if they don’t like me? What if I’m not as intelligent as they say I am? What if my child gets sick? The shackles of worry became so familiar to me that I did not realize I was bound by them. I had no concept of life without worry. As a result, I became dependent on my worry and anxiety, and I stopped depending on God. I relied on my endurance to overcome each day. I trusted my intelligence and my accomplishments to assure me of my future. I put my hope in measurable and calculated outcomes that I analyzed over and over in my mind. Slowly, my faith began to dwindle. Deep down, my heart was satisfied with wallowing in worry, and I started to think that God had left me stranded.
My story, and so many others, remind me of how God’s chosen people lost their faith even though God redeemed them from hundreds of years of oppression and slavery. When the Israelites were challenged by difficult circumstances, they worried and they complained. Their immediate reaction to trouble was not to trust God—instead they trusted their worries. When the Egyptians chased after them, they worried that they would die at the hand of their oppressors (Exodus 14:10-12). Two months after they escaped Egypt, they came to a wilderness and the waves of worry came crashing down on them again (Exodus 16:1-3). There was probably no food or water in sight and they all thought, what if we die out here? They complained to Moses and Aaron saying “You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel.” (Exodus 16:3 The Message). Like me, they became so comfortable in their fear and worry that they thought God had left them stranded to die.
Yet, it was not too long before that moment in the wilderness that God instructed his people to remember their redemption through the celebration of the Passover meal. Could it be that God instituted Passover because He knew the Israelites would succumb to their worries? Could it be that God knew that their worries would chip away at their faith, so He gave them a strategy to rebuild it? For the Israelites, Passover was their wake-up call. It was a reminder of God’s redemptive power, and if God could free them from slavery, He could save them from anything.
So, why worry? One could only speculate, what if the Israelites’ story would have unfolded differently? If they had clung to the story of their redemption instead of worrying, maybe they would not have crafted a powerless god made of gold. If they had remembered the day they were set free, maybe they would have mustered up enough faith to escape their worrying in the wilderness. If they had only remembered the meaning of their Passover meal, and the freedom that it represented, perhaps we would be reading a different story today.
Our story, however, is not finished. Every single day, when life’s troubles seem to be closing in on us, we have to make a choice—will we worry or will we remember? As we reflect on the Passover story and its representation of freedom, we should also remember our own redemption stories. I remember mine quite well. When I was a little girl, my parents thought I was going to die. After a severe allergic reaction, I laid on my parent’s bed in my childhood home, breathless. As my father administered CPR he cried out to God in his heart. He began to make plans for funeral arrangements and he thanked God for the six years that he spent with me. And then, as he retells the story to me, he heard a gentle voice affirmatively tell him that I was not going to die. Seconds later, I coughed—and then I took a breath. In my adulthood, I now often recall the day that God saved my life. I really mostly recall waking up in the hospital, because I was unconscious during the most severe moments of the allergic reaction. And when I awoke, I saw my mother and father by my side and they said to me, “You almost died.” When I think about that moment in time, it reminds me that God saved me, and my worries slowly begin to disintegrate. The pain in my chest goes away, and the waves of anxious thoughts transform into still waters of peace and clarity. Thinking back on my day of redemption freed me, and the freedom from worrying was in the remembering.Remember your day of redemption. Remember the day that God freed you. Remember the day He rescued you. Remember, and watch as your worries melt away into triviality.
Santa Fe, NM: A roadside memorial to George Floyd Memorial near downtown Santa Fe.
On April 20 as the afternoon grew later, the world awaited one of the most anticipated verdicts in a generation. The case was the State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin, but it seemed as though once again the value of Black Life was on trial in the United States of America. Chauvin was accused and found guilty on all accounts for the murder of George Floyd, but the nation and the world knew more was at stake in the verdict. When George Floyd was killed in May 2020, it was a moment wherethe specter of racism and police violence were thrust again into the national consciousness from their home in the daily lives of black people. The murder was particularly cruel and horrific. For nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds the former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck and back of George Floyd, suffocating him to death as he cried out for help, for his mother, and for God.
The incident was caught on video by a teenager who shared it to social media. Multiple news outlets picked it up and it’s playing sparked national outrage that ignited protests in large cities and small towns across America. While the world was on pause in the midst of the pandemic, millions got to see with their own eyes what many black families fear: a public death at the hands of a law enforcement officer, and another black man passing from life to become a hashtag.
As the verdict was read, guilty on all counts, a mix of emotions could be seen and heard throughout the nation. Relief, sadness, hope, anger, fatigue, closure. At the same time there was an acknowledgment that this was not the end of the struggle for equal justice under the law for black people, but another point in the middle. For many believers it was on occasion for lamentation more than celebration for a number of reasons. People breathed a sigh of relief for accountability by a law enforcement officer, but many noted that this guilty verdict could not bring restoration of George Floyd’s life. There is still much violence in the land and great need for God’s intervention. There is a lot of change to be had, a lot of work to be done and thousands of other stories that did not end the way George Floyd’s did. Within the same week, in the same state there was yet another case of an unarmed black man who lost his life too soon in an encounter with the police. In this nation there are people who lose their lives every day to violence. It is the reason many law enforcement officers go to work everyday, to protect and serve and prevent people from losing their lives. And yet the shadow of death by violence looms large in our communities. This enduring reality causes many of us to still cry out to God for justice, mercy, and change.
Lamentations is a book of the Bible that doesn’t get read very often, but is filled with violent and difficult imagery. The author wrote it during a time of great trauma when the children of Israel were in exile in Babylon and still facing destruction, disease, and death in the once great city of Jerusalem. They were aware that it was sin that brought the terrible conditions of suffering and injustice they experienced, but they were also aware that their hope was in God’s intervention. Our world in the wake of violence is similar to theirs in many ways, different than theirs in many others, but our hope remains the same in God’s intervention. The writer confesses his faith in the Lord and urges others to remember this time of trouble. This seems like a strange thing to do, remember a time of trouble, but it is instructive for us today.
Lamentations 3:20-23(NLT) says:
20 I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
21 Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
It is tempting to forget pain, trauma, and the difficulty of a struggle; especially when we receive some relief. It is tempting to move on from the case of George Floyd because the verdict has been rendered, but the lessons must be enduring if we are to love in a world that keeps more people like George Floyd alive instead of relieved at their murderer being punished. This is one reason Lamentations may be in the Bible, to give hope to everyone going through a time of individual and societal struggle. It speaks to the presence of pain, but also the endurance of God’s presence in ways that encourage our souls to overcome weariness.
Believers are invited by Lamentations to hear and remember the pain we experience, as well as the pain of others. But also to bear witness to the hope of God in the midst of it. Great is God’s faithfulness, His love never ends. Let us be lovers of ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities as we continue to cry out and advocate for God’s justice in the midst of the weariness and violence that continues to plague our land.
We’ve seen the local and national news and, like you, our timelines and newsfeeds are filled with sad videos. However, it is important that we keep in mind that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. And even when times get hard, it is important to remember that God is always in control. So, with that being said, our staff has provided some brief words of encouragement that we have found to be helpful during difficult times. Stay strong!
1. Things are never as bad as they seem.
2. Let every challenge make you better, not bitter.
3. Be patient.
3. As long as there’s breath in your body, there’s still hope.
4. God’s got this!
5. It’s o.k. to cry. Just remember that God will wipe away our tears in the midst of our pain.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced in June 2019 that her country would shift its focus from traditional metrics of national development like GDP to a well-being budget that prioritizes the happiness of citizens over capitalist gain. Although this sort of state-driven pursuit of happiness might appear to be a novel idea, it actually began in the 1970s, with Bhutan’s King Wangchuck proclaiming that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”
Humans seem to have always maintained an intense relationship to happiness. Research is converging on the key ingredients to a happy life, and they do not include increased consumption and more money. Other research indicates that we shouldn’t over-focus on happiness, as that can be counter-productive. Yet the more we seek happiness, the more it can elude us. No sooner have we found it than we begin to sense its fragility and certain end.
Since 2012 and the creation of the World Happiness Report, happiness has had a measurement, with Northern and Western Europe, as well as North America, and other democratic and wealthy countries regularly taking the top positions. This has left many of us scratching our heads. Does that mean that people in other regions such as Africa are necessarily depressed, sad or angry?
Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, asked himself this very question. Obioma’s work explores the negotiation between tradition and modernity and the impact on happiness. In his 2019 novel An Orchestra of Minorities the hero of the novel, Nonso, is a poor, uneducated chicken farmer who stops Ndali, a well-educated young woman, from hurling herself from a bridge. The narrator of the story is Nonso’s chi, the equivalent of a “guardian spirit” that inhabits the human in traditional Igbo cosmology. Nonso’s journey from poverty and ignorance to striving for an education and recognition do not, as it turns out, bring more happiness to his life. Could ignorance really mean bliss?
Having recently listened to a radio interview with Obioma, we were intrigued by his idea that happiness is “noisy and communal” in poorer regions of the world like Africa, whereas despair in wealthier countries like the United States is “silent and alone”. WHO research demonstrating lower suicide rates in Africa compared to Europe seems to back him up. We recently had a conversation with him to explore these questions.
How we face adversity
Obioma tells us that he has increasingly pondered hope and happiness while observing how people in the United States face adversity. Having counselled several depressed students and colleagues, and observing that each semester at least one student commits suicide, he wonders what sets us apart in our ability to maintain hope. The death of one of his students particularly shocked him:
“You know, this girl who killed herself had a job, was on a scholarship, had a car, she can take her passport from the US and go anywhere, anytime… she is in the richest country in the world.”
He suspects that the hopelessness comes from focusing on “external miseries”. So Obioma decided to investigate by going back to his native country to interview everyday people about hope, happiness, and thoughts of death. Once there, Obioma found the paradoxical coexistence of hope and deprivation.
He relates his exchanges with a particular street market vendor selling books (we’ll call him Chiso) in Lagos. Chiso is a father of two and his wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and therefore unable to work. Obioma estimates the value of Chiso’s entire stock of books at around 200 dollars and his monthly salary around 80 dollars – at best. Yet despite being what Obioma refers to as the “wretched of the earth”, Chiso strongly believes that:
“tomorrow will be better… he believes that someday a miracle will turn his life around. It is an abstract idea; I mean, he has reasons to be sad too, right? He is unhappy with his situation. But he is deeply hopeful and can separate the difficulty of the now from the hope of tomorrow”.
Hope against hope
Obioma roamed Nigeria speaking with everyday people like Chiso on questions of hope and happiness, asking them “Have you ever considered suicide?” to which he received dozens of resounding “No!” responses. Many African countries like Nigeria are rife with grinding poverty, needless mortality, and high rates of violence. Yet for Obioma, hope is not about remaining complacent in in the face of great social ills. His is simply a story about radical hope and its implications for happiness in situations of far-reaching hopelessness.
Why then does Chiso continue to hope against all odds? Obioma notes that among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, there is a belief in radical individuality tied again to the concept of the chi. It translates as “I have divinity in me; therefore, I am very important, and in some ways the centre of the world”. By extension, the Igbo believe that “if I strive, I can achieve this”. The fact that similar people have tried similar things and failed does not dampen this radical individuality.
Up to now, the Igbo individuality sounds a lot to us like the Protestant insistence on transformative individualism and direct access to the divine. Indeed, like much of southern Nigeria, the Igbo are now predominantly Christian. How does this affect how they see themselves? Whether Christian (in the south) or Muslim (in the north), Nigerians are highly religious. The kind of Nigerian Christianity that Chiso practices is a syncretic cocktail of European missionary-spread Christianity and traditional beliefs. In this way, Christianity does not negate the Igbo “divine individual” but seems rather to reinforce it, enabling people to harness a “all-powerful force to engineer the desired destiny”, says Obioma.
Understanding the human experience
In the early 2000s, one of us carried out ethnographic research on West African traditions and aesthetics in Werewere Liking’s pan-African arts cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. Liking’s Aesthetics of Necessity elaborate on how practical creativity is sparked in highly constrained, resource-strapped environments. For Liking, necessity is what spurs the self into creative action, and for Obioma, it’s what prevents a focus on ‘external miseries’ so prevalent among those living with plenty.
Like Obioma, we are struck by the tension between African “poor yet hopeful” and Western “wealthy yet depressed”. The Western philosophical tradition has always been concerned with the contradictions between wealth and happiness. Aristotle addressed this in his Eudemian Ethics, extolling the importance of “human flourishing”, or eudaimonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he establishes the negative relationship between the pursuit of wealth and flourishing, reminding us that the “life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking… ” The relevance of Aristotle’s vision holds well today if we consider the negative impact of modern environments in places where wealth abounds. Wealth and modernity do correlate negatively with flourishing: just consider economist Richard Easterlin’s 1974 formulation of the Easterlin paradox: life satisfaction increases with GDP in poor countries, but grows flat in richer countries. In other words, the richer we are, the less we can buy our way into happiness.
So the examples abound – we are in a new age of inquiry into human happiness, particularly abetted by technology, which also brings into focus global inequalities. Yet the fundamental question about whether life is worth living requires a more direct answer. Hope says yes, life is worth living because the best is yet to come. Striving through adversity means hustling on into the future. Some people, it seems, did not need to spend the past two millennia to figure that out. Just ask Chiso.