Advent 4 – Love – Christmas Readings

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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

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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.

The Little Christmas Tree – some copies still available!

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In case you were interested in a copy of my Christmas children’s book, it’s available at the moment, although stocks are quite low.  You should be able to order it from your local bookshop, or online – for instance at Eden Books , Waterstones or Amazon.

Here’s some pictures to give you an idea of Lorna Hussey’s beautiful illustrations.  I took the pictures in my garden – the book is clearer and lovelier.
This is how it begins……

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Here is the wood, and the little Christmas tree……

 

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Here are some foreign language editions – I don’t think you can get any of these in the UK!

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The first Little Free Pantry in the UK!

Some good news from this corner of Suffolk…..

I’d like to share with you an article hot off the press at the Melton Messenger – the local parish magazine. I’ve tweaked it ever so slightly for the internet. In it, I talk about our open, freely accessible community food project, which we hope will be a sign of love and welcome, as well as practical help, to anyone who wishes to participate by either receiving or giving. Anyone is free to use the pantry, with no questions asked.

It’s such a simple idea, maybe it’s something you, or a community you belong to, could consider? It might be very welcome in the run-up to Christmas, and in the leaner days that follow. In the article is a link to the Little Free Pantry website, which is full of delightful and helpful things.

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Sharing the Harvest – New Community Food Project Launched!

We’re delighted to tell you that St Andrew’s new community food project is now up and running!

It’s a Little Free Pantry – a set of shelves in the Church porch which are freely accessible. Anyone can leave some tins, and anyone can take some. The ethos of the project is:

“Take what you need, give what you can”.

We are quite excited to be able to announce that we have successfully registered our shelves with the Little Free Pantry movement. It is now, officially, the first in the UK! You can find out more about the movement, and see St Andrew’s Melton on the map, at their website: http://mapping.littlefreepantry.org/

Back to the launch….. it was at our Harvest Festival. The Church was looking beautiful, decked out with orange autumn flowers, and wheat, and apples. It smelt as good as it looked. During the first hymn, as we gave thanks for the harvest, we all brought up our gifts of tins and packets and gave them to Rev Paul, who piled them on the altar. Later in the service, we joined hands to pray a blessing on the shelves, and for all who would use them. The shelves were stacked with the tins that had been brought. The surplus will go to the Salvation Army’s food bank. It felt that we were participating in something very ancient – giving thanks for, and sharing, the Harvest – in a way that was new to us, visibly opening our Harvest Thanksgiving to whole parish.

For we hope that Melton neighbours will want to join in. It’s a way we can all participate in the generosity of Harvest, whether we are giving, or receiving. We hope it will be a year-round sign of God’s love in a very practical, daily-bread way – with tins of beans, and soup, and such. We hope it will help to strengthen the sense of community in Melton. It’s so good that we can keep the Church and its garden open and accessible to the neighbourhood, and we hope this project will be a further sign of welcome, and of the inclusive community we are seeking to build here.
As people are free to take and leave when they like, the stocks may be variable, but we’ll do our best to keep an eye on things and make sure the shelves aren’t empty!

So, why not come along and take a look? Why not come along and join in?

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can change the world — Howard Zinn

We have a tradition of sharing produce in the congregation – many people have productive gardens with gluts of tomatoes and apples. We now have a basket above the shelves where we can extend that sharing to all our neighbours – subject to the vagaries of harvest and weather!

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If you’d like to think some more about Bread, and hunger, you might like to read my Lent post on “I am the bread of life”, here.

Christmas Retold – Light in the Darkness

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As we are drawing to the end of Advent, and nearly at the shortest day, I thought I would share with you a few extracts to steady us in our Christmas preparations.  If you are feeling too busy and burdened, or not busy enough and on the edges of things, it can help to turn our attention to the Christmas message of light coming into darkness, of hope and new life emerging in the most unpromising of circumstances.

May you have a peaceful and blessed Christmas, wherever you are.

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Caravaggio – Adoration of the Shepherds

From Prayers and Verses

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

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894

Also from Prayers and Verses, a poem I wrote as a child.

The dawn is breaking, the snow is making
everything shimmer and glimmer and white.

The trees are towering, the mist is devouring
all that is in the reaches of sight.

A bell is ringing, the town is beginning,
slowly, gradually, to come to life.

A candle is lighted, and all are excited,
for today is the ending of all man’s strife.

5b Walter Launt Palmer (American painter, 1854-1932) Winter's Glow
Walter Launt Palmer

The light is coming into the world.

 

Please feel free to use the extracts, saying where they are from.

The Little Christmas Tree – still some copies available!

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Just in case some of you are beginning to think of buying or ordering books for Christmas, I thought I’d let you know that there are copies of my first book, The Little Christmas Tree, available.  You can order it from Lion, the publishers, as well as other online places like Waterstones  and Amazon, if you like to order things online.

Of course, if you have a local bookshop, you can always give them a ring and ask them to get it for you, if they don’t have it in stock.

It is always a pleasure to hear people say that their children have really enjoyed the book, and that it is part of their Christmas.  That’s such a privilege.

Here is another of the beautiful illustrations by Lorna Hussey – this one is the endpapers, of the wood after the storm.

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And a photo of the woods near where I live.

New Publication Date, and Autumn Quiet Spaces – it’s here, but shh..

 

 

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It’s always exciting to get a parcel from Marston Book Services – they deliver from my publishers, and, ridiculously, I am surprised – what could it be?  Sometimes, there is a foreign language edition I didn’t know was coming out, and sometimes, it’s work I did a while ago and have forgotten.

This time, it’s Quiet Spaces for the third quarter of the year.  September, that isn’t too hard to think about, but Christmas? Really? Shh, I don’t want to think about that yet…..
I wrote a series of meditations on the carol See, amid the winter’s snow  to take us through the busy days of the Christmas celebrations.  It seems impossible to imagine there might be snow again – now, when it’s so hot, when the skies look like maybe, at last, a rainstorm is coming.  But there we are, this is the time for ordering a copy ready for the Autumn.  Have a look at the link to see what else is in there.  It’s full of good things.

 

Also, the same publishers have given us a date for Jesus said “I am”, and you can read more, and also register to pre-order, on their website.  You should also be able to do so at your local bookshop, or the usual online places including Amazon.
The publication date is Friday 18th January 2019.  It’s quite exciting!

 

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The Little Christmas Tree – A good time to order!

I know, it’s still a long way off, Christmas.  I know, we don’t really want to get started yet.  Some shops, however, do seem to be trying to get us started, and October half term is the time when I try to begin thinking about mincemeat making, or some long term baking to be doused with brandy.

And yet, I notice that sales of my picture book, The Little Christmas Tree, are picking up, so some of you good people must be getting organised!  As of today, there are only three copies left on Amazon.

There are still copies available elsewhere – for instance through the publishers Lion, and other booksellers such as Waterstones.  So, if you were thinking of getting hold of a copy, now may not be too soon at all!
It is beautifully illustrated by Lorna Hussey, and the sparkly edition is a particular joy.  Here are some pictures to whet your appetite.

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Last year, I took the book to the fascinating Cribfest at St Mary’s Church, Grundisburgh.
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I hope you and the young children in your life enjoy it as much this year as you have in previous years.