Top Advent Music, Books and Daily Devotional

Advent, the prime time to fix our hearts on Christ’s birth, began yesterday. Here are some suggestions to get you started as we prepare for the Christmas season.

 Seeking God’s Face: Praying With the Bible Through the YearPhilip Reinders

3137jQR+IoL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

Following the church calendar seasons of Advent and Lent (as well as “ordinary time,” i.e. most of the year) the brief daily devotionals, which include daily readings from the Psalms, another brief Scripture passage, and a daily prayer that specifically references Reformed creeds and confessions (i.e. Heidelberg, Westminster, Belgic, etc.) in an unobtrusive and winsome way, this book–far from being arid or erudite– will greatly help orient you for the Christmas season (even though it’s not exclusively a Christmas book). If you’re already using a daily devotional, you can still use it with this one. Download a free Advent PDF sampler here.

On the IncarnationSt. Athanasius, with a Preface by C.S. Lewis41QQ3xAgoQL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_

I owned this small book for over a decade before finally reading it two years ago. Why did I wait so long? I can’t think of a better book to help fix your mind on Christ’s Incarnation. And Lewis sets the table as only he can do.

   

A Christmas Carolers’ Book in Song and StoryTorstein Kvamme

I extensively examined a myriad of Christmas carol 51thahYV3GL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_-2books, and this is the clear winner. Originally published in 1935, it was written by a Danish man named Torstein Kvamme. (With a name like that, he was simply predestined to write this book.) Containing 49 songs with lyrics and music, this is a straight up old-school (and predominantly sacred) Christmas caroling book, replete with readable brief song introductions and minimalist illustrations. It’s also highly portable, kid friendly, and cheap (yet not cheaply made). This year I’m buying multiple copies, for our family and guests. And if you plan on caroling, this is the book to use.

                                     

                                                  ChristmasBruce Cockburn

  Although originally released in 1992 by Canadian singer-songwriter 51CkXgFB5XL._AA160_Bruce  Cockburn, this album is in our family’s top three Christmas favorites. Containing stripped down acoustic music and harmonies with hints of French, Creole, and Mexican stylings, there’s not a dud on the album. Twenty years later, it’s one of the few modern Christmas albums that sounds as good as when it was released. At times joyful, at other times somber and pensive, it’s a beauty.

                           

                                 ChristmasHarry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte’s collection of Christmas tunes is unparalleled. I first51X-Q2ZQ96L._AA160_ heard it in the mid-1990’s on our local classical music radio station (although it’s not classical music). I was immediately smitten. Now it’s in our top three Christmas albums. Whenever we have guests during the Christmas season, they inevitably ask about it. And his song “Goin Down Jordan”? It’s strangely out-of-place, but a huge highlight (especially if you’re a Baptist).

              

41kjaDnRv+L._SL500_-2 The Holly and the Ivy: Carols from Clare CollegeJohn Rutter

This was esteemed choral composer John Rutter’s big splash into Christmas music in 1979. If you love classical choral music, you probably already own it. If you think you hate choral music, buy this, listen to it several times through, and get back to me. If you still hate it, lunch is on me. Or maybe some homemade eggnog.

61KasVMcH0L._SY355_ChristmasSufjan Stevens

Weird, quirky, occasionally haunting and mostly played with friends in his home on children’s toy instruments, Sufjan’s Christmas might take a bit getting used to, but once it clicks you’re hooked. One of a few of our family’s desert island Christmas discs.

—And what’s largely considered the definitive version of Handel’s Messiah? This one.

—Want a daily or weekly Advent devotional that strikes a nice balance of Scripture, song, and commentary—and it’s free? Read this.

What are your Christmas favorites? Let me know in the comments below.

A Very Merry Debbie Downer Christmas

Pondering sin during Christmas seems like Debbie Downer crashing your office party.imgres

But I’ll be brief.

Cornelius (Neil) Plantinga Jr. wrote an accessible, winsome, and condensed update of his exceptional book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of SinThe article, available as a PDF document, should be required reading for anyone who wants to better understand sin, and subsequently the need for redemption.

Plantinga progressively—and deftly—unravels sin in the following way:

  1. Shalom
  2. Vandalism of Shalom
  3. The Human Race “Has a Habit” Where Sin Is Concerned
  4. Parasite
  5. Corruption
  6. Who’s to Blame
  7. The Bottom Line

Advent is a most appropriate time to dwell on the nature of our sin, looking to the Redeemer who was promised in Genesis 3 who would deal with it and its ruinous consequences head on. If you can, get the book. If you’re unconvinced, read the PDF updated abridgment first and then buy the book (and thank me later.) It’s that good, in a devastating sort of way. It will make you newly appreciate Advent’s significance on the need for Christ’s Incarnation.

An Open Letter to Clarence the Angel (From the Film It’s a Wonderful Life)

Dear Clarence,

At the outset, please forgive me if this letter seems a bit disjointed. I’ve never written an angel before, so I’m a bit imagesnervous!

What’s the occasion of this, my very first “Angel” letter? I realize it’s a tad tardy, but it’s regarding the movie that made you famous: Frank Capra’s iconic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve watched it for nearly every year I’ve been alive, and have even passed the tradition on to my growing children. Indeed, for much—perhaps even the majority?—of the United States (even Christians) Christmas is nearly synonymous with the movie. A Christmas passing without watching it? Unthinkable! Just recalling that famous line by one of the Bailey girls, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings!” gets me all misty-eyed. After all, you got your wings by helping George, right? Way to go!

However, as much as I deeply appreciate the film on many levels, I’ve had a budding concern. Really it’s not so much a concern as it is—how shall I put it?—a mild disagreement. I know, I know, lowly old me disagreeing with you, an angel. What nerve! Please allow me to briefly explain.

After you save George from attempted suicide and he gets a harrowing glimpse of what life would be if he never existed, almost in passing you comment, “You see George, you had a wonderful life. Don’t you see it would be a shame if you threw it all away?”

Now by any measure, it would appear George Bailey certainly had a wonderful life. (By “wonderful” I’m inferring images-1you mean “great” or “delightful”?) He had a beautiful wife, four kids, a home to call his own, and friends galore. His list of achievements is legendary:

  • Saves Harry (his kid brother) from drowning, who then goes on to become a war hero;
  • Keeps his wife from becoming an old maid;
  • Rehabilitates and rescues alcoholic Mr. Gower (his childhood boss) from inadvertently killing someone and rotting in jail;
  • Saves his dad’s business;
  • Averts the lovely Violet from becoming a prostitute;
  • Prevents Bedford Falls from becoming “Pottersville.”

At the movie’s end he almost had everyone eating from the palm of his hand. (I could make a comment about how that final scene may be interpreted as an act of worship, i.e. how they all enter his home dumping money on the table and breaking forth in song, but I really must focus!)

Back to my mild disagreement. Not to sound all curmudgeonly, Clarence, but is it really a wonderful life? I don’t mean exclusively for George Bailey, but for the whole of humanity. Can it be said—even for the Christian—that life is wonderful?

Yes, I concede there are moments in life where one can say, “That was wonderful!” I’m not discounting the many blessings, episodes of sheer exhilaration, joy, beauty and awe.

But surely you know how we are a fallen race, ruined and marred by sin and it’s ongoing, decaying effects. Even theimages-2 most sanctified Christian is not immune to a difficult marriage, job loss, miscarriages, cancer, the ebb and flow of friendships, unexpected tragedy. Life is hard, even considering wonderful moments.

Consider Jesus: did he live a wonderful life? (He is the Suffering Servant.) What about the Apostle Paul and the early church? Even today, I think of some of the most mature Christians I know who, even amidst life’s highs, would seriously question if this earthly life is “wonderful” (in the truest sense).

Does following Jesus mean one will have a wonderful life? Instead, Jesus promises a joyful life, even amidst significant suffering. In theological language, to expect a wonderful life now is to have an over-realized eschatology. We’re living between two worlds, the now and the not yet.

In other words, Clarence, the reason this isn’t a wonderful life (in the Capra-esque way)—even for the redeemed—is for this simple reason: Life this side of glory is not the way it’s supposed to be—even for George Bailey.

So this Christmas I’ll break out the hot cider, huddle the kids around our bulky T.V. with spotty reception in our cold basement and once again watch It’s a Wonderful Life, anticipating lines from memory. But this time, Clarence, I’ll do so thinking of the Redeemer who one day will make all things right in a world gone terribly wrong—even for the George Baileys among us. To think otherwise (especially for the Christian) is to prepare oneself for a life fraught with unremitting despair, disillusionment and despondency.

Rest assured, I’ll still robustly sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!” and mean it with all my heart. As Augustine once wrote, “…a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.”

Jesus help us.

Advent Blessings,

Michael

—(Originally written for Desiring God)

Doorbusting Advent: A Prayer From a Dull Heart Not Quite Ready for Christmas

An Advent prayer—

Lord, 

Today begins yet another Advent season.

I know, I know. I should have a sense of anticipation, grandeur, and awe as I prepare my heart, mind, and will for Christ’s coming.

Yet, truth be told (and as you already know!), my heart feels dry, dull, and dead. It especially occurred to me during this past Black Friday. Biking to the store before dawn on a freezing, dark, and brittle Minnesota morning (a fitting metaphor for my heart), my hopes of being one of the 30 doorbusters to cash in on a sweet deal were dim.

Yet as I rounded the corner and approached the storefront, my mood quickly changed. Feverishly scanning the crowd I realized I was among the Fortunate Ones. My heart leaped for joy! Racing, even floating, to the line, I did a head count: I was number 18. 

Standing there with a glad smug satisfaction—“I’m number 18!!” I wanted to shout to the world—I pondered my response. Then it hit me. “Why don’t I doorbust Advent with the same eagerness and determination as doorbusting Black Friday?”

And so, at the beginning of Advent 2013, would you, the Giver of all good things, please forgive me for my dull heart? Would you grant deep repentance where it is needed? And would you gift me with greater childlike wonder, faith, and joy as I ponder Christ’s Incarnation? Would that I freshly experience this “joy to the world!” And so as I read your Word, sing Advent songs, and lift prayers to you—amid all of the good and necessary material Christmas preparations—may my heart be changed to prepare him room. In short, make me an Advent doorbuster.

Do this for your glory and my joy, and the joy of others.

In the name of King Jesus, whom I long to adore both now and forever,

Amen

Advent Resources for Families

While we haven’t yet reached Thanksgiving Day, Advent is now only five days away, beginning this coming Sunday December 1st.

Not ready? You’re not alone. (Although I did warn you!)season_of_advent

But enough with the guilt and shame.

Don’t wait till Thanksgiving Day passes to figure out what you’ll use to prepare your heart and mind for Christmas. It will likely be too late.

If you have a family (married with or without children), here are two excellent Advent resources, both from Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. Both include Scripture readings, songs (with accompanying music), and brief winsome background narratives.

While they were originally published in 2009 and 2010, each individual day is undated, so you can use them any year. I printed them out and put them in flexible red document presenters with a transparent front cover, and give one to each of our kids so they can follow along and participate.

  1. For Yonder Breaks a New and Glorious Morn! (Daily)— To keep our family in Advent rhythm, this is what we use. It’s not all seven days of the week, but instead five, providing a buffer and some flexibility.
  2. Born a Child and Yet a King (Weekly) Same concept as above, but in a weekly format.

A final note: Bruce Benedict of Cardiphonia was the primary creator of these Advent resources. He and his team produce excellent theologically sound and creative worship resources that I highly commend. If you’re the pastor of a church, you should familiarize yourself with them.

Advent Countdown: Books and Music Suggestions

Advent, the prime time to fix our hearts on Christ’s arrival, begins this year on December 1st. That’s only 48 days, or just a little over a month and a half, from now. Before you know it, you’re staring at 2014.

Now is the time to prepare for Advent, not the last week in November. By then, it’s likely too late.

Here’s several suggestions to get you started.

Books

Seeking God’s Face: Praying With the Bible Through the Year (Philip Reinders)

3137jQR+IoL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

Following the church calendar seasons of Advent and Lent (as well as “ordinary time,” i.e. most of the year) the brief daily devotionals, which include daily readings from the Psalms, another brief Scripture passage, and a daily prayer that specifically references Reformed creeds and confessions (i.e. Heidelberg, Westminster, Belgic, etc.) in an unobtrusive and winsome way, this book–far from being arid or erudite– will greatly help orient you for the Christmas season (even though it’s not exclusively a Christmas book). If you’re already using a daily devotional, you can still use it, incorporating this alongside it.

On the Incarnation (St. Athanasius, with a Preface by C.S. Lewis).41QQ3xAgoQL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_

I owned this small book for over a decade before finally reading it two years ago. Why did I wait so long? I can’t think of a better book to help fix your mind on Christ’s Incarnation. And Lewis sets the table as only he can do.

A Christmas Carolers’ Book in Song and Story (by Torstein Kvamme)

Last year I extensively examined a myriad of Christmas carol 51thahYV3GL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_-2books, and this is the clear winner. Originally published in 1935, it was written by a Danish man named Torstein Kvamme. (With a name like that, he was simply predestined to write this book.) Containing 49 songs with lyrics and music, this is a straight up old-school (and predominantly sacred) Christmas caroling book, replete with readable brief song introductions and minimalist illustrations. It’s also highly portable, kid friendly, and cheap (yet not cheaply made). This year I’m buying multiple copies, for our family and guests. And if you plan on caroling, this is the book to use.

Music

Christmas (Bruce Cockburn)

Although originally released in 1992 by Canadian singer-songwriter 51CkXgFB5XL._AA160_Bruce Cockburn, this album is in our family’s top three Christmas favorites.  Containing stripped down acoustic music and harmonies with hints of French, Creole, and Mexican stylings, there’s not a dud on the album. Twenty years later, it’s one of the few modern Christmas albums that sounds as good as when it was released. At times joyful, at other times somber and pensive, it’s a beauty.

Christmas (Harry Belafonte)

Harry Belafonte’s collection of Christmas tunes is unparalleled. I first51X-Q2ZQ96L._AA160_ heard it in the mid-1990’s on our local classical music radio station (although it’s not classical music). I was immediately smitten. Now it’s in our top three Christmas albums. Whenever we have guests during the Christmas season, they inevitably ask about it. And his song “Goin Down Jordan”? It’s strangely out of place, but a huge highlight (especially if you’re a Baptist).

The Holly and the Ivy: Carols from Clare College (John Rutter)

This was esteemed choral composer John Rutter’s big splash into 41kjaDnRv+L._SL500_-2Christmas music in 1979. If you love classical choral music, you probably already own it. If you think you hate choral music, buy this, listen to it several times though, and get back to me. If you still hate it, lunch is on me. Or maybe some homemade eggnog.

I hope these resources serve you this Advent season. If you have any particular favorites, please share them in the comments.  Aim for brevity, providing 1.) the specific resource and 2.) less than three words to describe it.

And before you forget, mark your calendars for December 1st. It’s not too early to prepare for Advent 2013.