Peace – the second Sunday in Advent – a shoot springing up from a stump.

It’s the first of December, we’re entering into Advent proper now. This post is in preparation for the second Sunday of the season, and for many the theme of the week is Peace, following on from Hope last week. Tree stumps also feature.

Once again, we are engaged in a radical practice of seeing what could be alongside what is. As with the thoughts on Hope, we’re not trusting to wishful thinking, or pretending real obstacles to peace don’t block our way.

They dress the wound of my people
    as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
    when there is no peace.


Says Jeremiah . And I’m sure we all know the distress of having some deep issue dismissed, and peace proclaimed when what that means is people keeping silent about weighty matters. That is no peace. We are in search of something much more radical.

How to hold on to some kind of centre, some kind of Peace, in the midst of all that surrounds us? Whether that’s deep matters of justice, distress, and hurt, or our more daily concerns of lists and duties and timetables and so many forgotten-to-do-in-time things?  How to hold on to a centre, and to peace, in the midst of loss, and loneliness, and Christmas pasts? This Sunday, the second of Advent, the theme of peace is much needed.

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This beautiful Advent ring is from The Chapel in the Fields,  and you can read more about it, and the words on it, here.

Once again, readings for this week turn to the prophets. A longer meander through the section of Isaiah we read from below will reveal much that preceeds the talk of peace. There are words which seek to uncover injustice and untruth, addressing past conflicts and wrongdoings. This isn’t peace which seeks to bandage over matters that need deeper healing, this is peace as a result of a long process of radical transformation. It’s a vision of the dream of God for the world. Of the growth and new life possible in things which seem beyond hope of greening.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
 They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11: 1-2, 6-9

I am very struck by the image of the tree stump – cut down, presumed dead, or unproductive – springing back into life.  We see again the hope in even the most hopeless situations, the determination of life. Many have looked back at these words of Isaiah and seen the coming of Jesus in them. In the shoot springing up, and in the little child who will gently lead. Born into most unpromising circumstances – homeless (at least temporarily), under enemy occupation and the cruel rule of a local puppet tyrant – there is a deep promise of peace and hope in the coming of Jesus. This new growth will take a suprising form. This dream of a new world will grow under the surface, in hearts and lives. Appearences are deceptive.

Even my beautiful dead cotoneaster, picture at the top of this post, harbours life.  Although the plant itself hasn’t sprung up from dead roots, other things have.  Birds perched in the branches, dropping seeds, and now the light has reached the ground, things are growing. And the dead wood is a haven for so many small creatures. I wrote about the tree here.

And deeper, and further into the prophecy, we have the harmony of all creatures, including humans, living at peace. We have an ecology of plenty and playfulness, of trust and abundance. As we meditate on the possibilities of peace, and the world as it may be, can we catch a vision of what that might be like? As we see the number of trees, the whole landscapes and ecosystems, that have been lost, how might these words speak into that situation with hope, justice and peace?

You might consider writing down your own vision for how such a just, peaceful, restorative, abundant world might appear. You might wish to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” from the Lord’s Prayer. What comes to mind as you pray that bold and transformative prayer? And as we pray, so we seek to live. How might we live this week in response to this vision, this dream, this prayer?

And as we do so, we could turn to this week’s gospel reading. Trees come up here, too…..  John the Baptist, preparing the way for the ministry of his cousin Jesus, speaks of knowing trees by their fruit.  What their lives produce.

Here it is, from my version in The Bible Retold.

Under the white heat of the sun, far from shade, the murmuring crowds gathered.  Some had walked through city streets, others through fields and vineyards, but all had come out into the stony, dusty Desert of Judea to see one person.
It was John, son of Zechariah, who stood by the river Jordan.

John was no polished performer – he looked wild, dressed in rough clothes of camel hair held together by a leather belt.  He was thin, eating only the locusts and wild honey  he could find in the desert.  But his words were full of power, full of life and holiness. He called out in a loud voice “Repent! Turn your lives around and come back to God!  His kingdom is near.  Come and be washed clean!”  And many came forward, full of sorrow for the wrongs they had done, and John baptized them in the River Jordan.

There some among the religious leaders who came and joined the crowds to look holy in front of everyone else – they thought they were good enough already, and had no real need to change.  “You snakes!” the Baptist spat: “We can tell what you are like by what you do – just as you can tell a tree by its fruit.  Don’t think you can fool anyone with show-religion!”

But most who came were hungry for a new beginning.  For John taught them to hope.  In his words, they caught a glimpse of something beyond their everyday lives.  They understood that John the Baptist was preparing the way for something, or someone, astonishing.
“I baptize you with water, for repentance.  But you wait. There is one coming after me who is so much greater.  I am not even fit to carry his sandals for him. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire – a baptism that will wash you inside out.”

In Luke’s Gospel, we get an insight into what this preparation for the one who is to come  might look like in practice

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” …..

Luke 2:9-11

We remember the Advent traditions of giving – not just to friends and relations, but to others as they have need.  What John the Baptist is calling people to, to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God, looks a lot like sharing, like generosity of spirit, as we are able.  Perhaps this is a way towards Peace.
As our readings take us closer to Christmas, to the birth of the one who we have been waiting for – springing up like a new shoot – we will find a clearer focus on the Prince of Peace who is to come, and the way of peace he walked.

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Hope, and Peace

Perhaps we can make time to keep our eyes open for signs of new growth in the winter gloom, when all seems cold.
Are there shoots appearing? Are there signs of new life?
Can we pursue peace by looking for justice, and by sharing as far as we are able?
We can share kindness, and patience, and perhaps a smile to cheer someone’s day.  Perhaps we can do more than that.  If we have the choice to simplify things for ourselves, we may find we have a little room to share with others.
Might that be a path to a more peaceful Christmas?

Wherever you are in your Christmas preparations today, may you know Peace.

This photo is of an apparently dead, flailed hazel hedge near where I live. Despite this treatment, it has put out some new growth. How many years it’ll withstand such an onslaught, I don’t know. But I am heartened to see the new shoot growing up from a very unpeaceful process. You can read more about the hedge here.

As a small stone, dropped in a pool, sends ripples to its furthers edges,
help us know our small actions of love and kindness can do great good.

Help us do the good things we can,
trusting you will use them.

From Prayers and Verses

On the subject of trees, Eden online bookshop has a few copies of my children’s picture book available….

Hope – the first Sunday in Advent

As the days have grown darker, and colder, I’ve been thinking about Advent, and hope. Traditionally, Hope is the theme of the first Sunday of the season, the first Sunday of the Church year too. Autumn seems to have been long, and restorative, and I’m not quite ready for winter. But here we are, nonetheless. And winter has its consolations.

I think there is wisdom in the old practices of having Advent as a time of quiet, reflective, waiting – a little like Lent before Easter. It’s so at odds with the flashing lights and loud shops and busyness, that understanding, but we can perhaps catch moments where those wintering practices are possible, and might help us….. pools of quiet light where we can breathe and think.

I’m also intrigued by the more medieval practice of putting yourself in the place of the people of Israel as they waited, not quite knowing what they were waiting for. Of not naming Jesus and Christmas, but instead allowing what we long for to be recognised and owned and prayed and worked for. In our context we join so many people throughout history who have felt the future to be shifting and uncertain, and who have longed for a kinder, gentler and more beautiful world. Taking some time to know and feel what we lack, what kind of world and lives we desire, might help us too face a troubling future with some courage and determination.

So Hope is a good place to begin.

Ah, hope. I’ve been turning over in my mind what it means to nurture hope in a world which seems increasingly unstable in climate and economics and culture. I’ve settled, for now, on making a distiction between hope and optimism. So, for me, I’m thinking of optimism as an opinion that things will work out. Something tied to outcomes. I see hope as a stance, an attitude of the heart and spirit, that it’s always worth looking for what brings life, for what is good. It does not require us to be naive about the dangers and difficulties around and within us. We are called to be as wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves – Matthew’s gospel.

Nonetheless, it’s worth working as if the world-as-it-could/should-be is here, emerging amongst us, small as the signs and growth may be. Not a glib avoidance strategy that it’s all fine, really, it’s all going to be fine…. but as a deliberate and courageous stance, holding on to a vision of how things could be.  With the cost of living crisis bringing fear and hardship, and with the climate noticiably more unstable, we need courageous hope that’s prepared to work to refashion things around us in defiance of what we see.  There is real power in such acts.

The picture of the bulbs and the bookmark at the top of this post relates to an action I took with some friends in our local high street to coincide with last year’s COP. We handed out bulbs and bookmarks, and encouraged people to think about ways they could plant hope. You can read more about that here.

Little Free Pantry at St Andrew’s Church, Melton

As Advent begins, we re-read the words of the prophets together.  They often spoke into desperate, unpromising circumstances with a mixture of a vision to hold in our hearts, and actions for our hands to do.  Those actions can be prophetic themselves, speaking out and making plain God’s dream for the world – a beautiful, hopeful vision strong enough to withstand hard times – brave enough to choose to be born to a poor family, who sheltered in a stable, and had to run from a murderous tyrant.  This is how hope was offered to the world, in the infant Jesus.

During this Advent series, I’ll share with you some extracts from my books.  Here’s something from The Bible Retold , as the retelling of the Hebrew scriptures comes to an end, and we look forward..

As the walls were rebuild, so were the people.  For God was building them into a new kind of kingdom.  Isaiah the prophet wrote: “This is how to truly serve me: unbind people who are trapped by injustice, and lift up those who are ground down.  Share your food with the hungry, and clothe the cold – that is how to live in the light!”

The people listened to his words of bright hope.  “There is much darkness in the world, but your light is coming!  All nations will be drawn to you, and they, too, will shine!”
….

“A child is born to us,
a son is given.
Authority will rest
on his shoulders,
and his names will be
Wonderful Counsellor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
His kingdom, his peace,
will roll across the lands,
and he will reign on the
throne of David for ever.”

We give thanks for the work that is being done right now, in our communities, to clothe, and feed, and seek justice.  May we have the courageous vision to join with that work of light.

From Prayers and Verses

Scatter the darkness from before our paths.

(Adapted from the Alternative Service Book)

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The days are dark,
Dear God, give us your true light.

The days are dark,
Dear God, give us your true life.

The days are dark.
Dear God, give us your true love.

From Prayers and Verses

The Advent Candle Ring is from the good people at The Chapel in the Fields
It gives me great pleasure to know that the oak at the base was once a lectern, and the lighter wood on top a dining table.  The words written around it are from the ancient chants, the  “O” Antiphons. These chants came into being when people did not call for Jesus to come at Christmas, but instead used names from the Prophets – like Emmanuel, God with us – to name their hopes.  The first few centuries of the Christian Era saw these great prayers, the “O” Antiphons, sung during Advent, calling on Christ to come now, and to come again.
You can listen to the old chant, and read Malcolm Guite’s sonnet, and much more, here.

This coming week, let’s hold on to hope, look for signs of the life of God breaking through, and see where we can be part of that move towards a more beautiful, loving, hopeful world.

From the top photo…..

I made my bookmark with a stamp by the lovely Noolibird.

The plastic free bulbs are from Farmer Gracy

And the table is from Hannah Dowding Furniture

Melton Little Free Pantry – Christmas Update

It feels like disappointment after disappointment, crisis after crisis in the run up to Christmas this year in the UK. We’d carefully pieced together plans for seeing those we love, and tried to work out how to do that as safely and joyfully as we could, only for those plans to be upended when it was rather too late to make alternatives. Some of us may find that our cupboards are full, and our guests are not coming. Others, intending to be away, are finding it hard to stock up with Christmas goodies – or anything – in time.

For Suffolk folks, the Little Free Pantry at St Andrew’s Church, Melton, might offer a solution to at least the food sharing aspect of this difficulty. You can read more about the project here. It’s a very simple idea. Anyone can come and leave some food at the pantry, and anyone can come and take some food.

Leave what you can, take what you need.

So, if your cupboards are looking a bit full, and you are sad that you can’t share your food with your nearest and dearest, why not consider sharing it with your neighbours?
If you find yourself in need of this and that, why not come along and have some?
I find it’s helped fill a sad space to leave a few things to cheer someone else. It’s helped me to pass some Christmas cheer on. Why not complete the circle by receiving it? It’s looking quite full and festive at the moment.

Access to the pantry is via the lane to the right of the church, cutting across the end of the Rectory drive. You can see some photos of the way here.

Opening Times:

Monday to Saturday, 9 am – 4 pm
Sunday, 12 noon – 4 pm
Open during the Christmas holidays

You can leave items at the Rectory outside of these times. A link to the Church website can be found here.

Apologies for the blur – I still haven’t worked out how to get a clear shot while wearing a mask!

Of course, our current crisis has left people with real worries and practical difficulty in providing for themselves and their families. The Little Free Pantry is a way of neighbours showing love and support for each other at a difficult time. If you are facing hardship, there are others who can also give help. You could try the local Salvation Army, and the wonderful Teapot Project. The Teapot Project redirects food that would otherwise go to waste, passing it on. They make wonderful frozen meals, too. You can order the food at full (very reasonable) price, or pay as you feel.

With this terrible virus, our normal instincts to reach out to each other are constantly frustrated. In these very dark days, we may long to give and receive love, and support, and practical help, and not know how to do it. The pantry is in some ways such a small thing, but it is a sign of hope and of the love we long to share. And the food is not a small thing, it really does help. The fact that it’s there, that people in the neighbourhood are looking out for each other, helps too. That feeling that we are not alone is so important. Joining in with the giving and taking of the pantry connects us. Why not give it a go?

For those who are not local, there may be food sharing schemes where you live, or you could consider starting one?

Christmas, a time when we remember there is light in the darkness.

Advent 3 – Joy

Here, I’m reblogging some thoughts for the third Sunday of Advent, as we draw closer to Christmas.
This week’s theme is Joy, and we consider the way joy and difficulty might be held together. We also think about how the presence of another person can help that holding. This year, that’s hard, but I’m greatly encouraged by the imaginative and determined way we’re seeking to connect with each other, even when it’s far from ideal. I have also noticed how very precious these apparently small meetings are, how amplified in their capacity to sustain us.
Small gestures, small connections, with neighbours and friends and people far away, really matter.

Andrea Skevington

maryelyladychapel.jpg Mary by David Wynne, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral

I love this contemporary statue of Mary in the ancient setting of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel.  I love the bright, pure colours of blue and gold, which are probably  much closer to the original look than the current mellow stone.  Most of all, I love her stance.  It is open, powerful, ready to receive the extraordinary gift that was promised her.  It is joyful – with a joy that acknowledges the reality of the difficulties to come, I feel.

Once again, this week, we have a powerful word – Joy – as our theme.  Once again, we are aware that our immediate circumstances may not point to joy, but to sadness, or anxiety, or emptiness.  Once again, we see examples in the stories of Christmas where people have faced great difficulty, as Mary must have done with her unexplained pregnancy. The consequences…

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The Little Christmas Tree – a beautiful BSL video telling of the story.

I’m really thrilled to be able to share with you that Janeene Streather has recorded a compelling and sensitive sign language telling of my children’s story, The Little Christmas Tree. It features beautiful close-ups of Lorna Hussey’s intricate illustrations of the trees and the animals.

It’s such a joy when something that emerges from your imagination finds a place in the imagination and work of another, and builds up layers of connection and resonance. And as a BSL story, it will find its way into the imaginations of others, and so continue to broaden and deepen as more people make a home for it in their Christmas storytelling.

Do take a look. It’s beautiful. If you are a teacher, parent, or member of the deaf community, this will be of especial interest, and I think everyone will find it a few minutes of gentle calm to help recentre us on the love that comes to us at Christmas.

Please do watch it here: The Little Christmas Tree, BSL

If you would like to buy a copy, it’s very good that that bookshops are open again! It’s also available at all the usual online places, including bookshop.org which has already supported independent bookshops to the tune of £500,000 since its launch earlier this year.

Light and hope in even the darkest, coldest night.
Advent blessings to you, and thank you for reading.

The Bible Story Retold – an idea for Christmas 2020

This post is a follow up from yesterday’s on ideas for using my children’s picture book, The Little Christmas Tree, this year for Advent and Christmas. You can read that post here.

I’ve also been contacted by another person who’d like to use my retelling of the Bible this Christmas. My old friend Rev Jenny Tebboth of Chalfont St Giles has had a lovely idea for involving families in an alternative crib service out of doors, which should be possible even if there are restrictions. Jenny has very generously given me permission to share the outline of her idea, in case it is of any help to another community trying to plan Christmas activities…. It’s well worth thinking about if you are puzzling over what to do for a crib service, or nativity of any sort.

It’s like a treasure trail…..

“Families will work through the story in six scenes round the village, read part of the story at each scene, pray and listen to a carol – ending behind the inn for hot chocolate.”

I’m so excited to think that my retelling will form the framework for such a lovely idea. The book is in twelve chapters, and Chapter 8 is mainly the birth and early life of Jesus, so there is a good flow of narrative for the six scenes. It’s a very exciting and innovative way to do a socially distanced Christmas adventure. Being out in the cold of winter will be a powerful way of entering into the Nativity story imaginatively, and offers something new and memorable to do to feel involved in Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter, and the birth of Jesus. It’s a beautiful idea, and I look forward to hearing more about it. I’ll post an update when I know more.

If you’d like to read more of my Christmas Retold, you can do so on a previous blog post, here. There, you’ll also find some prayers from my book, Prayers and Verses, and some beautiful pictures.

Here’s some of the story, though, to give you an idea:

At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles.  The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night.  The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable.  There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay.  Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.

There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago.  The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch.  Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful.  All was well.

Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness.  The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!”  The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light.  “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place.  In the town of David, a saviour has been born.  He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for.  And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”

From The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters


If you’d like a copy of The Bible Story Retold, you may well be able to order through your local bookshop even if it’s closed. Alternatively, there are the usual online places. I’m particularly excited about this new venture, though, and commend it to you….

Bookshop.org is a new enterprise which supports local bookshops while selling online. It’s applying for B corporation status in the UK, which means it operates to high ethical standards and makes a positive contribution to communities. You can read a newspaper article about it here.

If you follow this link, you’ll find my book The Bible Story Retold on sale there. It may be they don’t have many copies, so….

You can also find it on Eden bookshops, and all the other online shops.

Once again, it’s so good to hear and share these ideas. If you’d like to use any of my material, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like, I can share what you plan to do on this blog nearer Christmas. You are very welcome to use my material whether you get in touch or not. Please do acknowledge where it’s from, and that will be good.

Advent 4 – Love – Christmas Readings

candles_flame_in_the_wind-other

It’s getting close now….
It’s nearly midwinter, nearly the shortest day….
It’s nearly Christmas.

And I want to give my attention to the story, to let the wonder of it seep through me, and there is a pile of ironing, and things in the kitchen that need attention, even though I am keeping things simple, even though.

It’s easy to feel the darkness closing in, even though there are lights and music flashing and blaring out there. In here, it’s cosy, and the sun is setting already. I will hold on to the wonder of love being born among us, even though the circumstances could hardly have been less promising – for circumstances are never quite what we hoped, and there’s the lesson. To look deeper than circumstance. To make a courageous decision to hold on to hope, and peace, and joy, and love, even though. For these things are real, and true, and enough. These things are golden strands, woven through the dark fabric.. It is where they can be found. And the One who is coming will light the way, and scatter the darkness, and hold out a helping hand.

I’ll hold on to the message of “Love came down at Christmas”, and light my candles in the fading light, and watch the rain clouds sweep across the sky, rain falling on all of us, just the same.

Perhaps later, the skies will clear, and we’ll see the stars.

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You can find out more about the candle ring, and the words around it, here.

From The Bible Retold

The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census throughout the whole empire, when all the people would be counted, and taxed. The orders spread along straight Roman roads, and were proclaimed first in the white marble cities and ports, and then in the towns and villages of the countryside.

Even quiet Nazareth heard the news, and Mary and Joseph began to gather together their belongings, ready to travel to Bethlehem. That was Joseph’s family home: he was descended from King David, of Bethlehem. They set off south on the crowded road, for the whole empire was travelling. But, for Mary, the journey was especially hard, and the road seemed never ending. It was nearly time for her baby to be born.

At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles. The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night. The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable. There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay. Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.

There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago. The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch. Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful. All was well.

Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness. The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!” The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light. “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place. In the town of David, a saviour has been born. He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for. And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”

The shepherds watched as light was added to light, voice to voice, until they were surrounded by a dazzling, heavenly host of angels, all praising God and saying
“Glory! Glory to God in the highest,
And on the earth be peace!”

And then, in an instant, the angels were gone, and the shepherds were left in dark night shadows, listening to the sound of a distant wind. But their eyes still shone with heaven’s light.
“Let’s go and see for ourselves!” they called to one another as they raced over the dark, rocky fields to Bethlehem. There, they found Mary and Joseph, and, just as the angel had said, they found the baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. They saw him with their own eyes, and spread the angel’s message to all they met.
“The Promised One has come! The Christ, the Anointed One, has been born!” The angel’s words were on everyone’s lips that night in Bethlehem. And, as the shepherds made their way back to their sheep, bursting with good news, Mary kept their words safe, like treasures, in her heart.

And from Prayers and Verses

Love came down at Christmas
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rosetti
1830-94

O God,
be to me
like the evergreen tree
and shelter me in your shade,
and bless me again
like the warm gentle rain
that gives life to all you have made.

Based on Hosea 14:4-8

The Little Christmas Tree

christmas tree

Please feel free to use any of the material that you find helpful, saying where it is from.

Have a peaceful and joyful Christmas, and thank you so much for giving your time to read this blog

Advent 3 – Joy

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Mary by David Wynne, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral

I love this contemporary statue of Mary in the ancient setting of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel.  I love the bright, pure colours of blue and gold, which are probably  much closer to the original look than the current mellow stone.  Most of all, I love her stance.  It is open, powerful, ready to receive the extraordinary gift that was promised her.  It is joyful – with a joy that acknowledges the reality of the difficulties to come, I feel.

Once again, this week, we have a powerful word – Joy – as our theme.  Once again, we are aware that our immediate circumstances may not point to joy, but to sadness, or anxiety, or emptiness.  Once again, we see examples in the stories of Christmas where people have faced great difficulty, as Mary must have done with her unexplained pregnancy. The consequences for her of saying “Yes” could have led to rejection, abandonment, or even death. She does not overlook the huge difficulty, but goes through it, beyond it, to the bigger move of God, the higher purpose her life is serving.  She does this through her own choosing, her active acceptance, of the role the angel gives her.   It is a radical, open, trust, which Wynne’s statue of Mary captures so well. She also does it through seeking out her cousin Elizabeth.  With Elizabeth, also unexpectedly with child, she has someone who might be able to understand her strange predicament, and help her come to terms with what has been promised.  The two women – one too young, the other too old, could nurture and support each other, both giving and receiving, as the time came for Elizabeth to give birth.

Here too is a route to joy – the presence of another.  We are promised that God will not leave us, and we often find that another flesh and blood person embodies the love and care of God for us.  It must have been so good for Mary and Elizabeth to share those three months together. Perhaps, we too can offer some companionship to each other – simply being present, simply listening, simply understanding.

Here is the story, from my book The Bible Retold

Among the fields and vineyards of Nazareth, in Galilee, lived a girl named Mary.  She was soon to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, who could trace his family back to David, the shepherd king.

Then, one day, astonishing news burst into Mary’s quiet, hopeful life.  The angel Gabriel came to her with a message.
“God is with you, Mary!” Mary gasped, and fell to her knees.  “Don’t be afraid. God smiles on you!” The angel spoke the astounding words gently, lovingly. “You will have a son and name him Jesus.  He will be called great – the Son of the Most High God! The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and his kingdom will never end!”

For a moment there was silence, as Gabriel’s words filled the air – and Mary’s mind. “But how can this be, as I am not yet married?” Mary asked.
“God’s Holy Spirit will enfold you.  Your child will be holy.  Even Elizabeth, from your own family, is going to have a child, despite her age! She is now in her sixth month.  So you see, nothing is impossible with God!”

Mary raised her eyes to Gabriel’s face. “I am God’s servant. Let it be as you say.” And the angel let her alone, her mind spinning with the strange words.

Then Mary thought of Elizabeth. “The angel knew all about her – I must go to her.” She got ready, and set off quickly for Elizabeth’s home in Judea to the south, near Jerusalem.

As soon as she arrived at the house, she hurried to Elizabeth and took her hands.  At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby leaped inside Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit filled her.  She understood at once what had happened to Mary.

“You are blessed among all women, and blessed is your unborn child!” she said. “Why have I been so honoured? Why should the mother of my Lord God come to visit me?” Elizabeth laughed, and put Mary’s hand on her belly. “You see how my child leaps for joy at the sound of your voice?”

Then, Mary speaks out extraordinary words, which in turn echo the words of Hannah when she said goodbye to her long-awaited son, Samuel (I Samuel 2)  You can read Mary’s words in my previous post here.

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And so begins the journey of one called Lord God by Elizabeth into human flesh – not too pure and holy to found among frail humanity, not too great to be nurtured in the womb of a young woman, and born into uncertain poverty.  One who set up home on this earth, and opened our eyes to see heaven here, even here.

We thank you for being born among us,
sharing with us what it is to be human.
we thank you for showing us a way to live,
full of grace and truth.
Light up our path, and let us walk with you.

From John 1

From Prayers and Verses

 

 

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Advent ring from the good folk at Chapel in the fields. If you’d like to know more about the words, you can find out at my previous post.

 

Please feel free to use my material, saying where it is from.

 

Advent 2 – Peace

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We’re drawing deeper into Advent now, the days are shortening, the cold and wet are creeping closer.  Meanwhile, the shops are full of – beautiful things, and plastic tat, and carols, and cheesy music, all jumbled and clashed together as we go from one to another, and back again.

How to hold on to some kind of centre, some kind of Peace, in the midst of lists and duties and timetables and so many forgotten-to-do-in-time things?  How to hold on to a centre, and to peace, in the midst of loss, and loneliness, and Christmas pasts? This Sunday, the second of Advent, sometimes takes the theme of Peace, and peace is much needed.

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This beautiful Advent ring is from The Chapel in the Fields,  and you can read more about it, and the words on it, here.

Once again, readings for this week turn to the prophets.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
….
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the
knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11: 1-2, 9

I am very struck by the image of the tree stump – cut down, presumed dead, or unproductive – springing back into life.  We see again the hope in even the most hopeless situations, the determination of life, and in the promise of Isaiah something or someone, to persist, to keep growing and going, despite how things seem. All is not lost.

Even my beautiful dead cotoneaster, picture above, harbours life.  Although the plant itself hasn’t sprung up from dead roots, other things have.  Birds perched in the branches, dropping seeds, and now the light has reached the ground, things are growing – a holm oak, some sycamores, and the rose I planted to climb up the trunk. I wrote about the tree here.

Trees come up in the reading from the Gospels, too.  John the Baptist, preparing the way for the ministry of his cousin Jesus, speaks of knowing trees by their fruit.  What their lives produce.

Here it is, from my version in The Bible Retold.

Under the white heat of the sun, far from shade, the murmuring crowds gathered.  Some had walked through city streets, others through fields and vineyards, but all had come out into the stony, dusty Desert of Judea to see one person.
It was John, son of Zechariah, who stood by the river Jordan.

John was no polished performer – he looked wild, dressed in rough clothes of camel hair held together by a leather belt.  He was thin, eating only the locusts and wild honey  he could find in the desert.  But his words were full of power, full of life and holiness. He called out in a loud voice “Repent! Turn your lives around and come back to God!  His kingdom is near.  Come and be washed clean!”  And many came forward, full of sorrow for the wrongs they had done, and John baptized them in the River Jordan.

There some among the religious leaders who came and joined the crowds to look holy in front of everyone else – they thought they were good enough already, and had no real need to change.  “You snakes!” the Baptist spat: “We can tell what you are like by what you do – just as you can tell a tree by its fruit.  Don’t think you can fool anyone with show-religion!”

But most who came were hungry for a new beginning.  For John taught them to hope.  In his words, they caught a glimpse of something beyond their everyday lives.  They understood that John the Baptist was preparing the way for something, or someone, astonishing.
“I baptize you with water, for repentance.  But you wait. There is one coming after me who is so much greater.  I am not even fit to carry his sandals for him. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire – a baptism that will wash you inside out.”

In Luke’s Gospel, we get an insight into what this preparation for the one who is to come  might look like in practice

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” …..

Luke 2:9-11

We remember the Advent traditions of giving – not just to friends and relations, but to others as they have need.  What John the Baptist is calling people to, to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God, looks a lot like sharing, like generosity of spirit, as we are able.  Perhaps this is a way towards Peace.
As our readings take us closer to Christmas, to the birth of the one who we have been waiting for, we will find a clearer focus on the Prince of Peace who is to come, and the way of peace he walked.

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Hope, and Peace

Perhaps we can make time to keep our eyes open for signs of new growth in the winter gloom, when all seems cold.
Are there shoots appearing? Are there signs of new life?
Can we pursue peace by looking for justice, and by sharing as far as we are able?
We can share kindness, and patience, and perhaps a smile to cheer someone’s day.  Perhaps we can do more than that.  If we have the choice to simplify things for ourselves, we may find we have a little room to share with others.
Might that be a path to a more peaceful Christmas?

Wherever you are in your Christmas preparations today, may you know Peace.

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The Little Christmas Tree – I’ve been thinking ….

I was checking availability of my Christmas book, and was very pleased to see that Amazon had rustled up a few more copies, when I looked at the cover, and started thinking…..

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I was thinking of how much more I know now about how precious woodland is to all the life of the planet.  The story came to me years ago now. I have always loved woods, but this year the urgent necessity of protecting the natural world – and forests in particular – has really come home to many of us.  Including me.

And so as I read this simple story again, I read it with a deeper awareness of the peril all us creatures face, and how vital it is that trees remain to shelter the creatures of the wood – and indeed all of us, one way or another. The kindness, the interconnection, the sanctuary provided by one small fir tree  provides safety for all the other creatures in the storm.  That kindness is blessed by the smaller stars of Christmas night, and the angels who fill the sky with their songs.

Now, as well as a tale of Christmas night, and Christmas itself, I see it as a story of hope for all of us who are trying to feed and shelter nature over the winter – in our own gardens, or in the wider countryside. A story of hope for all of us who are trying to do small and simple things to make the world safer and better for all its inhabitants – whether it’s reducing plastic, or taking the bus. These small acts matter, the Little Christmas Tree shows us.  They matter a great deal.

I hope that children, and their parents, will feel that message of hope, and the love of natural places, running through the words and beautiful pictures of this storybook.

 

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You can, of course, ask your local bookshop to order you a copy, or order one from any number of online book places.