An Advent Playlist: What Would You Add?

medium_11665249906 Got to talking on Facebook the other day about Advent albums---in theory, this should be its own thing, as a season separate from Christmas, but it's often folded into the behemoth category of Christmas music.

I only knew of one album of Advent music, but of course, many friends schooled me on the other great ones out there. So I've been building a bit of a playlist, which people have asked for.

Here you go---sorry there are no links, but I'm doing this quickly since we're celebrating a certain seven year old's birthday today. A quick Google or iTunes search will get you there.


Advent: Piano Solos, Jim Morgan. Especially these tracks: Rejoice, Divinum Mysterium, Hyfrydance (my favorite)

Advent at Ephesus, Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. I dumped the whole album onto the playlist because it's such lovely choral music.

Midwinter, Peter Mayer. This singer-songwriter hits just the right Adventish tone on this album of original music, though a few tracks are explicitly Christmasy. So you should avoid Stables, Christmas Morning, Heavenly Child, and Make My Christmas Day until later. But don't forget to add them to your Christmas playlist because they're beautiful. I dream of using Where Is the Light with a church choir someday. It's rousing!

Advent, Vol. 1 and Advent, Vol. 2, The Brilliance. These were recommendations, haven't downloaded them yet. Same with Advent by Tangled Blue.


Thanksgiving, George Winston, December.

Each Winter As the Year Grows Colder, Marty Haugen. Haven't found a version of this that I love, but the words are wonderful, very Adventish.

God, Beyond All Names, Bernadette Farrell. I like the Trinity Episcopal Church version. I could listen to these lyrics all day. And it has a fun alto line.

Veni Emmanuel and Of the Father's Love Begotten, both from Winter's Solstice III by Wyndham Hill

Beneath the Trees, William Ackerman, Winter Solstice

There is No Rose, Chanticleer, A Chanticleer Christmas

Lo How a Rose E'er-Blooming, Jennifer Knapp and Margaret Becker, The Hymns of Christmas

O Come O Come Emmanuel, Pentatonix, PTXmas

Gabriel's Message, Sting. He has a couple versions of this (most recently on his Winter's Night album) but I like the original 1980s version from A Very Special Christmas.

Enjoy! What have I missed?


photo credit: chrisotruro via photopin cc

What Time Is It? The Six Year Old Knows.

medium_3057617172 The final Advent reflection, sent this morning to my email list. If you'd like to subscribe and haven't, click here. Blessings of the Season to you...

I love so-called "Freudian slips"---those mistakes in speech that often uncover an unexpected meaning or layer of humor. But I'm not sure I want to give Sigmund Freud the credit---rather, these flubs often seem the work of that holy trickster, the Spirit of God.

One of my favorites happened several years ago at a church conference. During a prayer before communion, the speaker meant to say "love is stronger than death." Instead, whether because of a typo in the script or an error on her part, she said, "love is stranger than death."

And I thought, Yes. That's the heart of the Christian story, isn't it? Love does not follow the rules as we understand them. Love has its own illogical logic, that of grace and new life. It's truly strange, is it not, that the God who created nebulas and quarks and manatees and sequoias decided to pour into the flesh of a human being, live for a time, die without putting up a fight... and then three days later, that person’s heart starts beating again, neurons begin firing, breath pumps in and out of resurrected lungs. It makes no sense. It is strange.

And it's here at Christmas that that strange love has its beginning---with an unmarried peasant girl, a confused fiance, a birth in a cave, and a bunch of simple shepherds, mouths gaping open at the holy surprise of the thing.

God became a human being. Amazing. And that's the story we participate in this Christmas.

Today James gave me another slip of the Holy Spirit. For some reason, we were talking about what time it was, and he said, It's heaven o'clock.

Whether he meant to say seven, or eleven, or was simply making a rhyming joke by saying "heaven," I'll never know, because he saw my absolute delight at the phrase and repeated it again and again. That's what time it is, in this season of Advent expectation, as the hour grows close when Christ will be born in our hearts again. It's God's opportune moment. It's kairos time. It's heaven o'clock.

I told the small crowd at our Blue Christmas service last night how perplexing it is to me, that the first day of winter would also be the day that the days start getting longer. I understand it geologically. But spiritually it seems all wrong. You'd think that (here in the northern hemisphere anyway) the coldest season of the year would also be the one with the least amount of daylight. But no---all winter long, even while many of us experience colder and colder temperatures, the light is returning, bit by little bit each day. It's a holy disconnect, but one I find tremendously hopeful. Even when we feel discouraged or spiritually cold, even when we shiver against the darkness and pull our blankets and cloaks tight around us, the light is making its slow, relentless way back into the world.

Check your watches, folks---it's heaven o'clock. Love makes its way toward us again. Thanks be to God for that good, strange news.

I wish you all a most Merry Christmas.


photo credit: YlvaS via photopin cc

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

"Mommy, I really like it when we do something in worship, not just sit and listen." That was my darling daughter several weeks ago, reminding me that it'd been a while since I'd planned an interactive component in worship, aside from the standard singing/praying/speaking stuff we do every week. Sure, those things are experiential too, but she was talking about something tactile. Children in particular appreciate this, and folks of other ages do too. (And at Tiny, the people who don't need or appreciate it are still game to go along.)

Here is what we've been up to. We've kept it pretty simple this month---and as you will see, I'm borrowing liberally from other sources. The good thing about these activities is that they create an artifact that can be displayed in the sanctuary or fellowship hall.

Week 1: HOPE: We didn't do anything this year on the first Sunday of Advent because it was communion Sunday, and that's plenty experiential! (It was also Thanksgiving weekend so I kept things low-key re: worship planning.) But last year we had people write things they were hoping for on colored paper, and we collaged them onto a large poster with the word HOPE printed on it. The letters of HOPE were in outline, and the hopes filled in the letters, if that makes sense.

Week 2: PEACE: I used strips of paper from an old falling-apart hymnal and had people write prayers for peace on them and put them in the offering plate. These were made into a paper chain that decorated a small tree that's on our communion table:

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

Week 3: JOY: Again, I had people write on strips of paper---this time it was an occasion of joy they have experienced recently, and instead of hymnal strips we used different colors of construction  paper. These will be assembled on a piece large butcher paper to form a tree like so:

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

Week 4: LOVE: In lieu of a sermon we will do something interactive as the message. In the past we've done an impromptu Christmas pageant, or a processional of different Christmas symbols (nativity scene, poinsettia plant, bells) and explained the meaning behind each symbol. This year we will adapt the ABC's of Christmas which I saw on Fidelia's Sisters a couple years back. I think we'll have the various lines printed on individual pieces of paper for people to pick up when they come in. Then when the ABCs come they will "popcorn" up from within the congregation.

Epiphany: The children in the Upper Room are putting together a torn-paper collage like so:

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

I hope it will be finished by Epiphany. We intended to have everyone work on it at our Christmas potluck last weekend but time got away from us!

Advent Crafts, Field Tested: This One Made My Day

Nathan Proctor, Associate Director of Music at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, sends the following message that made my day:

I was inspired by your blog post on creative ways to up-cycle the blue hymnal. I lead a children’s choir of around 30 first and second graders and yesterday we created ornaments from pages from the old hymnal.

The children had a great time working on this project- there was lots of singing in the room as they looked at the Christmas songs. We let them choose their favorite Christmas or Advent song to use on their ornament- lots of requests for Away in a Manger and Go Tell it on the Mountain. They even thought about important words they would like to have showing.

Emphasis mine. This is exactly what I had in mind, and I could not be more thrilled to read this message.


They loved the project! I plan to tie on some ribbon and include a note to their parents telling where the music came from before sending them home on the first Wednesday in December.

It was a really happy, joyful project! It was such a sweet time with the kids that I wanted to email you right away today to thank you for the fun idea.

Thank you for the great suggestions and ideas!

What can I say, Nathan? Thank you so kindly. And check out the children's handiwork:




The only downside is that I'm totally in the Christmas spirit and it's not even Thanksgiving yet...  ;-)


Upcycle the Blue Hymnal: Five Easy Advent Crafts

Like many Presbyterian churches, Tiny Church recently purchased a set of the new hymnal, Glory to God. (I love it.) Now, of course, we have stacks and stacks of blue (1990) hymnals we are no longer using. We'll keep a set of them, but we're starting to talk about what to do with the extras. Are there fledgling church communities or nursing homes that could use them? Undoubtedly... though I suspect many of these organizations will be inundated with offers of old hymnals since there's a lot of us suddenly trying to unload these things.

If and when we find a new home for the hymnals, there will be some random extras that are in such poor condition that they can't be passed along. I myself have 2 or 3 hymnals floating around my house and study, and they are not fit to donate.

So... how about upcycling the copies that have lived a good life and are ready for some transformation? Old sheet music is beautiful and historic and a lovely material to work with. It's good stewardship to give these old books new life.

Presenting: five easy Advent crafts using the blue hymnal!

I enjoy doing things with my hands, but I'm not skilled. So my suggestions are meant to be simple enough even for the craft-challenged. Got an Advent ministry event coming up? Sunday School lessons to plan? Potluck dinner in need of an activity? Here are my five best suggestions for EASY crafts with the blue hymnal... or any other sheet music or pretty paper. (Of course, I recommend you use hymns 1-60 for these crafts: Advent and Christmas.)

Stamped Music Ornaments

Upcycled Vintage Book Paper Holiday Ornament Tutorial

My girls and I are in the middle of making these right now and they are pretty and simple to make. The circles of music are so pretty, and the snatches of lyrics are festive. I got a set of Christmas-themed stamps and some burlap ribbon and we're good to go. We're putting sheet music on each side so there's no "wrong" side.


Clear Globe Ornaments


This picture is done with a wedding invitation but it would be easy to create strips of hymns and coil them inside the ornaments. Add a decorative ribbon and you're done. Here's one set of plastic ornaments I found.

For this project and the one above, it would be nice to have a small tag explaining the source of the music... especially if these are gifts.


Advent Poems


This is a craft and a contemplative activity rolled into one---great for a Quiet Day or prayer gathering. Take a favorite Advent/Christmas hymn (or maybe a non-favorite) and read through it for words or phrases you might string together to make a new poem. Circle those words and doodle the rest of the page as shown.


Paper Chain


Oldie but goodie! Use strips of hymnal pages to make a garland for the tree or a Christmas "countdown" chain. I can report that vertical strips of the hymnal are a good length for stringing together.


Paper Trees

CONFESSIONS OF A PLATE ADDCIT Easy Vintage Paper Trees_thumb[5]

Scroll to the bottom of this page for instructions. This is the most complicated of the five options here, but still not all that challenging.  


I've started a Pinterest board with these and other ideas for upcycling the old hymnals. With each liturgical season---Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost---I will choose my favorites and create a post just like this one. In the meantime you can follow my "upcycling-the-hymnal" board (or all of my boards).

Speaking of ways to connect, starting later this month I'll be writing weekly email articles including tips and inspiration to have a "Sabbathy" Advent. Sign up for those here.

Advent: Waiting

I wrote this six years ago when I was pregnant with Margaret. talk to me about the waiting…

mostly I crouch, head bowed, eyes closed against the soft black, safe in liquid suspense. but even in the nothing there are constant somethings: a fluid symphony, simmering, rolling, rushing past; a metronome beating out the time, world without end—and a voice: hushed murmur, burbling laugh, distant yet irresistible.

and then, at certain times, I am bathed in thirsty, throaty songs: o come, o come, long-expected one; rejoice, rejoice, prepare the way; comfort, comfort, alleluia, amen. and these reverberations of hope shake the cradle that holds me, and I stretch the kinks out of kneeling legs, raise my arms in praise, then bow and wait, again, for that time when we will sing Joy! To the World! together.

Let's Argue about Advent/Christmas Music Again

I got a comment yesterday on a post I wrote a year ago defending Christmas carols in Advent. Wow! These posts really do hang around forever. I looked at them again and mostly stand by what I wrote. Here is the whole string of posts:

First, I detected a genuine longing for Christmas, beyond some grabby-greedy-gimme kind of consumerist thing, and wondered if other people were feeling that too. (For what it's worth, I don't feel that same urgency for the Christmas message that I did last year at this time... you?)

Next, I unpacked some of the tensions between Advent and Christmas hymns and mounted a theological defense for singing Christmas carols in December.

Finally, I looked at some non-theological reasons for the same... some of them more substantive than others.


Actually, you guys argue---I have a book to finish.

And if you'd like a soundtrack for your discussion, may I recommend Peter Mayer's Midwinter---beautiful Adventy stuff there, with a bit of Christmas thrown in. These are all original songs---no chestnuts roasting on an open fire here.

Indeed, his song "Where is the Light?" is a perfect example of an Adventish song that has a celebratory, upbeat tone---which is something I talk about in my second post.


Several years ago I wrote a series of poems inspired by verses of Christmas carols. Since I won't be blogging this weekend, I've set these to post every so often instead. Merry Christmas! Season's Greetings! This one was inspired by "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and a VERY foggy day we had that year.

Still through the cloven skies they come With peaceful wings unfurled, And still their heavenly music floats O’er all the weary world; Above its sad and lowly plains, They bend on hovering wing, And ever over its Babel sounds The blessed angels sing.

the heavenly music floats high, high enough to catch sunlight, its pure white patches— distant through naked trees— puffed and fat with trumpets, or combed into pianissimo wisps.

and it came to pass that the weary world reached up, snagged the misty amens, clutched them close until puffs of angel song pooled in the valleys of chill, got tangled in gnarled branches making the weary wonderful, a suburb sublime.

you couldn’t see the fog all around you but you knew you must be in it because it rested like a lead apron, a comfort as you gulped down each damp chord thinking yes, this is what we begged for.

Love All---A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

"Love All" is the final theme of the four-week Advent Conspiracy study. It's been an interesting challenge to connect those themes with the lectionary texts each week. This is how I did it today.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church December 19, 2010 Fourth Sunday of Advent Matthew 1:18-25


Love All

For many long nights he had tossed and turned, gripped by his dilemma. The truth was, he loved Mary. He didn’t understand what had happened; she was such a level-headed young woman, but this… this story, about an angel and the Holy Spirit and a pregnancy. It would have been easier if she had just said there was another man.

It was an agonizing situation. He dared not tell anyone, instead going about his work as a carpenter. You know—to get his mind off this nightmare. Just keep working on nice tangible things. A table. A chair. Sturdy, concrete things. But it at night, his plight loomed once again, and there was no escaping it.

There were two options that Joseph could see. Well, three.

His first option was to report Mary. Make it public. If he did that, she could be stoned to death. That’s what the letter of the law would suggest. She was pregnant, the child wasn’t his, it was an open and shut case.

…It was warm this time of year, but he shuddered under the wool blanket to think of it.

The second option was to quietly call off the engagement. Mary’s life would be spared, but their life together would be over. Other men had done it. Other men had realized that the letter of the law was cruel and bloodthirsty. Other men had quietly dismissed their wives or fiancées for adultery. It was a lesser punishment than death but still serious. And he would be free to marry another and live a nice, comfortable life in obscurity once he’d put that whole mess behind him.

The third option was to go ahead and marry her… but that wasn’t really an option at all. Joseph was righteous. It would have been a disgrace to his honor to go on as if nothing had happened. And if, by some slim chance, Mary’s story was true, well, what kind of life would that be? No, God didn’t need Joseph. God could find some other way of bringing the Messiah into the world. God would find another way.

For many nights he turned over the options. Option 1, stoning, was unthinkable; Option 3, marrying the girl, unpalatable. It had to be Option 2, dismissing her quietly. But still, he wasn’t sure.

Joseph was a righteous man, and so he prayed for guidance. He prayed that God would give him a sign. Something, some little nudge. He didn’t need the burning bush that Moses had received. The still small voice that had whispered in Elijah’s ear would suffice. Just something, anything.

But there was no sign. Night after night, nothing. He was on his own.

But when the decision finally came to him, he was at peace. It was a relief to have a way forward. He made up his mind to go to Mary the very next morning and tell her that she could have her life, but their engagement was broken, their relationship severed. He rehearsed the conversation, planned what he would say, began to picture life after this decision: A new bride, someday. Children. His own children. A whole houseful! Several strapping sons to learn the carpentry trade. He drifted off to sleep with this image clear in his mind, and it brought him comfort.

This was the right decision. He was certain of it.

But that night, his certainty dissolved… his comfort whisked away on the wisp of an angel wing, his decision evaporated in a whiff of a dream. Mary… wife. Child… Holy Spirit. Save the people. Fear not.

He woke up, disoriented. Where was he? What time was it? Was he just given a message to do the exact opposite thing he’d already decided to do?

In the fog between sleep and wakefulness, he was irritated. The decision was made, for heaven’s sake. Where had God been during all those agonizing nights of indecision? And only now, once the decision had been made, does God make it clear what Joseph is supposed to do? What kind of crazy timing is this?

And do not be afraid? OK, that part just made him mad. He wasn’t afraid. He was a righteous man. He didn’t want Mary to be disgraced, that’s all. He was trying to do the right thing. The good thing. Where does this angel get off calling him afraid?

*    *    *

Now, it’s possible that it didn’t happen this way.

It’s possible that Joseph woke up the next morning fresh as a daisy, stretched, wiped the sleep from his eyes, scratched his beard contentedly and said, “Whew, what a relief. I was going to have a nice comfortable anonymous life, but now I get to raise an illegitimate child as my own, who is apparently the son of God. Bring it on, Yahweh.”

But I doubt he turned on a dime. Because he’d made his decision. The deal was sealed. He had resolved, he had determined how his life would go, he had everything all worked out before that angel invaded his dreams and took one look at all his well-laid plans and said “Not. So. Much.”

It’s one thing to be visited by God when you’re in the throes of a decision, still trying to discern which way to go. But for God to intervene when everything’s all nice and settled—well, it’s just downright rude, isn’t it?

In any case, Joseph took Mary for his wife. Whether he did the angel’s bidding without a second thought, or whether he dragged his feet and stammered out a protest, I guess we’ll never know. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he shook his fist at God and the future God had planned for him.

Because we know other things:

We know that Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Period. It was so out of the question that the mere idea of being pregnant made Sarah laugh so hard that she almost fell over.

We know that Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of Israel, was once so discouraged that he prayed for death and laid down in the middle of the wilderness to die.

We know that Jonah had made up his mind, no ifs, ands, or buts—he was not going to go to Nineveh like God commanded, and he was so committed to that course that he bought a ticket on a ship bound for the other direction.

And we know that Paul—called Saul—was so convinced of the danger of the Jesus movement that he was having Christ’s followers tortured and put to death.

In each and every case, like Joseph, they had resolved what they would do. And in each and every case, God confounded their expectations. You think you’re so smart? You think you know how this is going down? Watch what I’m going to do next.

And Sarah… had a child.

Elijah lived.

Jonah went to Nineveh and the city was transformed.

And Saul became Paul, a titan of the early church, who would suffer the same torture and imprisonment that he had perpetrated against the followers of Jesus.

Each of them had carved out a path for themselves—had resolved, like Joseph, to follow a certain path. And each of them was shown the expansive, explosive grace and purposes of God, which disrupted all their best-laid plans and thrust them into a bold new future. And in Joseph’s case, that wondrous future would mean the liberation and salvation of the world.

But no, strictly speaking, we don’t know if Joseph had a “you’ve got to be kidding” moment. But if he did, he is in excellent company.

Because the gospel is full of “You’ve got to be kidding” moments.

Turn the other cheek?

Sell all we have?

Sin no more?

Deny ourselves?

Take up our cross?

You’ve got to be kidding.

You want me to give to the poor in a down economy? You’ve got to be kidding.

You want me to show hospitality to the immigrant?

You want me to love Barack Obama?

You want me to pray for John Boehner?

You want me to treat the Muslim as a child of God?

the gay man?

the woman with the sign on the corner?

the cousin who drinks too much and ruins Christmas dinner?

the obnoxious dolt at the office? Child of God? Child of God? Child of God?

Love All? Really, All?

What Joseph, and Abraham and Sarah, and Elijah, and Jonah, and Paul, all come to realize, is that God’s always bursting things open for us, moving us in the direction of inclusiveness. There is a kind of reckless grace to the whole thing. We know it when we see it. It’s like going off the map, into something wilder and deeper and more interesting than we ever could have planned ourselves.

*    *    *

It’s a story on every TV channel at this time of year, about a man named George Bailey. George has an adventurous spirit, and his life is filled with great decision and ambitious plans to get himself out of the tiny hamlet of Bedford Falls—but these plans get thwarted every step of the way. He’s all packed for college when his father has a stroke and George must take over the family building and loan. His brother comes home from college with a new wife and a promising job, and again George’s plans and dreams take a backseat. He gets married and is on his way to the honeymoon when there’s a run on the bank and he and his bride must use their honeymoon money to help out the building and loan’s clients. At every turn, George has resolved to do big things, grand things, but it is never meant to be. And yet, as he discovers with the help of an angel named Clarence, he is deeply loved, and he’s had an impact way beyond what he could have imagined. He realizes, as we do, that It’s a Wonderful Life.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

That’s the testimony of Joseph, and George Bailey, and anyone who’s come to realize that stepping into God’s future is scary and wonderful and terrible and life-giving in ways we never would have imagined without God. That’s the good news of Christmas that we’re waiting for, yearning for: that God is coming into the world, reconciling all things, shaking things up, offering crazy abundant life.

I realized something for the first time this year. In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s a character up in ‘heaven’ that is sort of in charge of all the angels. Clarence talks to him from time to time when he gets stuck on how to help George.

His name is Joseph.

Now… I sure don’t want to make too much of this. But I have to think that if anyone was going to understand George Bailey, it’s Joseph. If ever there was someone who knew what it meant to let go of one’s resolutions and plans and decisions in order to embrace a more life-giving path, it would be Joseph, the father of Jesus—who didn’t quite live the life he planned to live, but who became a hero of our faith by stepping into the incredible drama of God.