Advent Resources for Grownups

IMG_3227Every year, around Thanksgiving, Haley and I lament the fact that we don’t already have reviews written for ALL THE BOOKS, because sorting through and sharing the wealth of Advent and Christmas picture books is a daunting task that we should tackle in, say, July. (But really: who wants to read Christmas books in July? Probably the same people who have the self-discipline to make all those homemade decorations in the summer so that they can pull them out and pin/Instagram them the day after Thanksgiving. If you are one of those people, know that you simultaneously amaze and perplex me.)

It’s a good problem to have, though, because it just means there are so many good books for children to share this time of year. And we certainly will have some new reviews up in the coming days and weeks.

However: in the past two years or so, I’ve fallen into the same trap during Advent and Lent. I’ve gotten so focused on doing the season “well” with my children that I’ve barely inhabited the seasons myself, or let the days of preparation teach me. In the process, I’ve found that I become pretty untethered from what each season is all about — with the sorry result that my words about “getting ready” feel dry and disconnected. And my kids aren’t dumb. They can tell when Mom is trying to get them to eat something she won’t touch herself, rather sharing the source of her own nourishment.

So this year, I’m trying to spend part of each day (generally the early morning) sitting quietly with Scripture, reading poems and selections that someone else has chosen, and generally listening to see if and how God will speak. I’ve set aside, for now, the goal of a productive quiet time, of chasing after what I think I need to learn. So much of the Advent story is about having our own projects upended and waiting to see how God is going to fulfill his promises. Waiting to see how, and when, God will arrive.

Toward that end, then — to help us all in the waiting, and watching, and setting aside our agendas for God — here are a few Advent resources for grownups. I hope you’ll find something here to help you wait upon the Lord, and sharpen the bright hunger of hope.IMG_3225

7--portinari-triptych-detail_advent_thumbnailThe Advent Project, created by the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts
Our small group is using this online resource together this year, and (like the previous spring’s Lent project) it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect meditatively, through word, art, and music, on Scripture that helps us understand this season. Short daily meditations for Advent through Epiphany are accompanied by musical selections and visual art. And I promise you: this isn’t flat or sentimental work. Introducing the project, Biola president Barry Corey writes, “It [Advent] is merriment and melancholy together, beauty so sublime that, like the best art, it simultaneously comforts and rocks us to the core.” You can visit the site daily, or subscribe to it via email.

Light Upon LightLight Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany, Sarah Arthur
This is the book I’m sitting with in my early mornings. It’s a simple but ingenious idea: for each week of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, daily Scripture readings and prayers are paired with complementary poems and excerpts from fiction. Authors like Dickens, Herbert, Donne and Eliot sit comfortably alongside newer voices, familiar and unfamiliar. It’s been an interesting and challenging book, one that has forced me out of my typical reading style (attempting to wring every bit of understanding out of every sentence) and into a more reflective, meditative approach. Which, as it happens, is perfect for Advent.

Sounding the SeasonsSounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian YearMalcolm Guite
Haley gave me this book a year ago, and it’s a lovely resource (or gift) for someone beginning to explore the church year, or who may not want an Advent devotional per se but still wants to approach the season mindfully. Or maybe you’d like to keep it on hand for bedside reading or preschool pick-up waiting?

Seeking God’s Face: PrayiSeeking God's Faceng with the Bible Through the Yeared. Philip Reinder

In a talk he gave at our church, Jamie Smith recommended this as a year-round daily devotional, and I ordered it right then and there. I’ve used it for about a year and a half now, and actually set it aside this Advent in favor of Light Upon Light, but it’s a wonderful book — and what better time than the beginning of the Christian year to start something new? For each day, there are Scripture readings as well as seasonally-appropriate prayers and suggested focus for free prayer. I love this book, and if I could, I’d stick it in all of your stockings.

Pray as You GoPray As You Go
Disclaimer: I haven’t used Pray As You Go myself, but I came across it awhile back while clicking through some of our church’s recommended Advent resources. I was particularly interested because it reminded me of Headspace, an app that some friends use and love. But, by my lights, Pray As You Go is much better: it offers a daily Scripture reading, music, and guided prayer in a short audio format. If you’re someone who has a daily commute, wishes for a personal spiritual director on call (why can’t I have my own church and curate on the property?) or is simply an auditory learner, this is a great site. In the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, they also offer a daily imaginative exercise and personal examen, both of which I have a very little experience with and would like to do more.

Let Us Keep the Feast

Let Us Keep the FeastLet Us Keep the Feast
Jessica Snell, editor
Doulos Resources, 2014

Our favorite topic to write about here at Aslan’s Library, right after theological kidlit and reading with children, is celebrating the church year.  So I’m incredibly excited to share a new resource for you: Let Us Keep the Feast: Living the Church Year at Home.  If you have any interest at all in learning about the celebrations of the church calendar and if you want to create a deeper sense of seasonal liturgy in your home, this is the book for you!

Let Us Keep the Feast, published by Doulos Resources, was actually written in four installments that were made available last year.  This newest edition contains each of those shorter books and has information about each season of the year from Advent (the first season of the Christian calendar) to Christ the King (the last Sunday in the Christian year).  The sections are well researched and written by a variety of people, but each contains similar components.  An introduction gives background about the season, both historic and theological.  Old, new, and global traditions for the season and any special days within the season are discussed.  Traditions involving food, children, crafting, and community engagement are all shared – and thankfully, the suggestions manage to be thorough without feeling burdensome.  Lastly, the resources section lists ideas for Scripture readings, songs, prayers, and other readings that correlate with the season.

I own the kindle versions of a couple of the season-specific Let Us Keep the Feast editions and if you’re short on cash or just not sure if this book is up your alley that format is a good option.  However, I think this book is one that probably presents itself better in print, so if you’re not a die hard kindle user then I’d encourage purchasing the paper copy.  Best of all, if you do buy the print copy you can actually get the kindle version for free – a nice win-win solution to my own ongoing debate about ebook vs old fashioned paper.

Advent is a time when, after a long season of Ordinary Time, many of us gear up for a long stretch of intentionally incorporating the church year into our family life.  I have a number of books that I reference in my quest to bring the Christian seasons to life in my home, but this is my new favorite.  Run out to get your own copy today and you’ll be ready for an end-of-year Christ the King celebration in a few weeks just before launching into Advent!

He Was One of Us

He Was One of UsHe Was One of Us
Rien Poortvliet & Hans Bouma
Doubleday, 1978

I have a friend – and I hope you are blessed with one of these too – whom I will follow blindly into any book. If she tells me to read something, I will, no matter how far it falls off my radar screen. Over and over, her choices have delighted, challenged, or taught me. I used to be in a book group with her, and read what she told me to for several years, so believe me: she has totally earned her book-choosing street-cred. (And is probably reading this blog right now: Hi, Sarah!)

So of course, when she emailed and asked if I had seen Rien Poortvliet’s He Was One of Us (I hadn’t), there was nothing to do but request it from interlibrary loan. Right away. And of course, she was right.

Sadly out of print, this is nonetheless a volume absolutely worth hunting for. He Was One of Us is a large, gorgeous collection of drawings by Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet depicting the life of Jesus and the reactions he evoked in those around him. Each painting is accompanied by short, evocative text by Hans Bouma that pulls the viewer straight into the world of the drawing. Much of the focus is on those around Jesus, arresting them mid-reaction to his words and deeds. Supplicant hands reach out; features twist in anger and rejection; self-satisfied, comfortable arms are crossed, shutting Jesus out. Paging through this volume, I felt not so much an observer as a participant in the gospel scenes – each page invites us to react, heart and mind, to the events playing out before us.

And honestly – sitting on the sunny porch of the Walt Disney museum in the Presidio, with tourists filing past – I teared up while paging through the book. The drawings radiate real, incarnate human life, almost like a collected family album.  Anna and Simeon gaze at the baby with a look that anyone who has held a newborn will recognize. Spread across two pages, a baby Jesus nurses; toddler Jesus plays and snuggles his father; a young man grins, proudly, holding the tools of his father’s trade. The disciples, standing with Jesus, are captured in a moment, almost as college friends enjoying the afternoon are caught by a camera unaware. The text above is poignant, as they smile out at us: “Do they know what awaits them? They’ll despair, be mocked, hated, threatened, persecuted. Their quiet life is a thing of the past. Either you belong to Jesus or you don’t.”

There’s a sense of reality and wholeness we can get from seeing the disparate moments of someone’s life captured in images and arranged in a narrative. (Why else do we put together slideshows at graduations, weddings, and funerals?) The great gift of He Was One of Us is that it invites us to contemplate Jesus’ life and humanity through these vivid, provocative portraits. Slight enough of text that the smallest lap child can join in, rich and evocative enough to be used devotionally by adults, and gorgeous enough to live on a coffee table and draw in unsuspecting visitors, this is a book to be treasured.

Writing to God

Writing to God: Kids’Edition
Rachel G. Hackenberg
Paraclete, 2012

You know what I find really hard? Teaching my kids to pray. What if I’m giving the message there’s some technique they have to master? I back off and don’t push them. But then, oh no: maybe I’m not giving them enough guidance? I find myself making suggestions for “improving” their table grace or bedtime prayers. Then I feel like I’m trying to orchestrate their encounters with God, so I give up and do the praying myself – hoping that somehow the modeling will wear off.

As with the rest of my life, so in this: I commend it all to the grace of God and try to get out of the way. (That’s pretty much any parenting book I would write. It’s a short book.)

This summer, though, once school is out and I have my daughter mostly to myself again, we are going to begin daily spending time with a little book called Writing to God: Kids’ Edition. Written by Rachel Hackenberg, it’s the children’s companion to her book for adults called (wait for it) Writing to God. I don’t think it will solve my anxiety around prayer instruction, but it will provide another avenue to actually practice it with my daughter – or better yet, to help her start her own daily conversations with God.

The structure of the book is pretty straightforward: seven different ideas for writing to God, each with a set of prompts to help kids compose written prayers. So, for example, idea #5 is “writing to God about ordinary events in your life.” Some of the prompts are “tell God about a time when you fell down,” “tell God something about waking up,”  and “tell God about school.” Each prompt is introduced with a short, chatty paragraph, and the author gives examples of her own prayers or those of other children.

There are other, more imaginative, invitations to prayer as well. Some of my favorites were under idea #6, “try new words or pictures for God.” Kids are invited to imagine how God is like their favorite color, that he is as close to them as breath, and to describe what that’s like.

I’m planning on providing my daughter with her own prayer journal, and setting aside a little bit of time each day when we will both use one of the prompts to write to God. (I like these journals, because they have space at the top for illustrating: perfect for a 6-year old. We’ll spend an afternoon making it special – and less academic looking! – with washi tape. Older children may prefer a nicer leather-bound book.)

You could start from the beginning and work straight through, or dip in and out. She won’t have to show me what she writes, if she doesn’t want to, and best-guess spelling and illustrations are just fine. I’m hoping this exercise will be an introduction to prayer beyond the list of intercessions we recite each night.

To be clear: this book is not a theological treatise on prayer, which is kind of why I like it. In fact, there are sample prayers that are kind of cheesy, or silly: but honestly, so are a lot of my own prayers, too. This is a book that invites children to come before God, with their own words, without trying to come up with something that will please an adult. To invite God into the workings of their imaginations, and to share their thoughts and lives with him. To start what will hopefully be a lifelong conversation.