#AdventBookClub: Isaiah

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Isaiah 9: 2-7

Having seen the key characters in the drama, we look back to a prophetic figure, Isaiah, who prophesied the birth of Jesus. At a time when many were sacrificing to God, he shared the despair of God, calling the people to wash the blood from their hands and get active:

… remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Isaiah talks about having come to know about light and darkness, how sometimes they can be the same thing, and in the times of greatest darkness, you will see yourself as you really are? We get a sense of God’s anger against those who ignore injustices… and how we will be burned up like stubble in a field (gives a sense of urgency!). As he speaks of the future coming he says

It wasn’t a messenger or even an angel that saved them, but his presence. In his love and pity, God redeemed them himself; he visited his people, he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

We forgot the past and rebelled against God in the past, will we do so again?

#Adventbookclub: Mary

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Luke 1:26-38

We get a sense of Mary, a woman who has been well-prepared for a role as homemaker by her mother. She is a woman who loves the world, loves life, and can see God in every part of it. Her parents thought that she would find it difficult to find a husband as she was too ‘headstrong’, but

I just wanted a strong love and a deep passion, and a way to channel this energy and faith and knowledge of God which was boiling inside me.

She describes herself as having a tremendous presence of God, the beliefs infusing everything that she’s doing, although they sometimes frighten her

I simply believe in God like I believe in the flowers and the trees and the birds and the seasons. God is there, with me and for me.

“God is not a thing… God is the lens through which I look upon everything and receive everything.” She suspects that others see her as mad, holy or deeply religious, but indicates that she’s simply a girl who wants to “seize hold of life and all its benefits”, living every moment as if its the only one she’ll ever have. We get a sense of the confusion as she takes in the import of the words, especially understanding how she can be with child as a virgin… it’s all too big to take in, but “it is as if heavy has reached down to earth, and touched me.”

This chapter is interwoven with lines from Christmas carols, as Mary seeks to understand, thinks how she’ll explain to Joseph, how the world will perceive what is happening, but the words of the angel she holds onto “nothing is impossible with God”.

#Advent20

Just picking the bit I love from Brian’s reflections from today – how are we being shaped by this journey:

Let your ‘inner quality of aliveness’ burn, like a candle.

Go with the waxing and waning of the spiritual life.

Celebrate beauty in a myriad shades and textures (it’s not all back and white!).

Hope, don’t keep wishing.

Nurture patience, and be ripened like a fruit

#AdventBookClub: Elizabeth

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Luke 1 5-15; 24-25; 39-45

Today we meet with Elizabeth, who has spent too long saying ‘if only’, and wishing for a child. She is disappointed that everyone assumed that it was her fault that there were no children (I have friends who have experienced this false assumption!), with the baby causing an emptiness between them, and a feeling of emptiness in her own life. For those who desire children, this is a sad state to be in, and there must be ways to find a better resolution – shame she didn’t have Sheridan Voysey’s book Broken Dreams to read.

Having sought to be supportive of friends who have got pregnant, she is overjoyed (but confused at the timing) once she is pregnant. Her husband, Zechariah, she describes as unsurprisingly full of doubt and fear (as age/disappointment have made them cynical), and therefore didn’t believe the angelic messenger – and so was struck dumb until the birth of John – who would come to share the good news of Jesus.

As her cousin Mary visits, she sees the life, joy and vitality in the young women. As the children in their wombs jump towards each other, Elizabeth feels that she has been reborn, losing all the bitterness of past years. She sees that her child will point the way to Mary’s child.

#Advent20

Brian reflected today on the juxtaposition he felt yesterday in watching the school nativity play, after the news of the Pakistan school shootings – this sentence stood out:

“This is a universe at war,” wrote CS Lewis, once upon a time. And Christmas was a key battle in it – not some soft-focused winter pick-me-up, but a cosmic fight-back. As John Eldredge reminds us, “The coming of Jesus was a dangerous mission, a great invasion a daring raid into enemy territory.” He would get himself killed, lest we forget.

I also really appreciated being given a free download of this book by Phil.

#AdventBookClub: Joseph #Advent20

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Matthew 1:18-24

Today we look at what happens in ‘The Christmas Story’ from the perspective of Joseph. Joseph is ‘a practical man’ who makes things (a carpenter) – unlike those who work in the ‘learned’ sector, he finds true satisfaction in getting something ‘done’ and there being no question that it is ‘done’. This does not stop him dreaming, however (named after ‘the most famous dreamer  in history’)…

He speaks of the joy of meeting Mary, so full of hope, expectation and zest, who re-awoke his dreaming in the full. He describes this not as love in the sense that many would think of it, but of love as the ‘accumulation of shared memories… the weaving together of separate stories into this story’, maturing slowly amongst commitment and ‘determined choosing’ (not so much the words we hear about with ‘romantic love’.

We see the tough, real emotions, the doubts that fill his mind as he looks at the pregnant Mary, and thinks of the times that others call him a fool … but, as a deeply religious man, a dream from God has given him the confidence to stand by her, and once the decision was made, he got on with things. He loves the Mary that is not a weak woman but ‘a force of joy and energy and life’, although he wonders that God could not have chosen someone better prepared.

Familiar with a wide range of trees/woods, Joseph finds it hard to see the bigger picture, but knows that the sturdy trees started out as but a seed. Unlike the trees, we long to be someone or something else…

Idolatry was always our greatest failing – making God out of wood, rather than seeing God in the wood itself.

Cottrell finishes, putting thoughts into Joseph’s mind as to what the future will be for this baby? Will it bring something refreshing, or will he be a barren tree on a lonely hill?

#Advent20

And the piece I liked from Brian Draper today:

Try to notice the times when you are seeking to impress others, today. Stop and ask yourself, how can I act differently, lovingly –  in order to give something, instead of trying to get something, out of the situation.

Always gracefully challenging us!

#Adventbookclub: Martha #advent20

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Luke 2: 1-7

Martha is the name given the Innkeeper’s wife in this version of the story. She’s a rather cynical woman who’s done her fair share of midwifery, and, clearly feels she’s been taken advantage of frequently, so is quite tough with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. She saw both desperation and dignity in Joseph and Mary, however, and so took pity on them. She gives a clear impression of just how dirty and dingy the space was, with straw full of excrement, probably not refreshed for several days (due to lack of time), with a trough (manger) provided for the forthcoming baby. We get a sense of just how scary this was for Mary – she’s young, and not experienced giving birth before… she goes through the full painful process.. and then engages in some ostentatious breastfeeding! Martha doesn’t understand it all, but feels that there is something different .. likening it to a new fire being kindled…

#Advent20

Brian thinks about those who make such a big effort for Christmas, and questions what elements of Christmas we should really/truly be making an effort for:

But it matters that we try. I mean, what was it about Christmas itself that proved so powerful that the guns fell silent, albeit briefly, in December 1914?

If Jesus was born as a child, what else is possible for us to achieve?

#AdventBookClub: David, with #Advent20

Stomer-adoration

Image (CC) Wikipedia

Luke 2:8-17

Today, we’re looking at the events of that first Christmas through the eyes of ‘David’, a shepherd. We are often given a ‘romantic’ view of the shepherds, but Cottrell makes it clear that these were crude, vulgar men, used to a hard lifestyle, enjoying women and drink. Alongside, they were gentle (but pragmatic), as they cared for their animals (with fore-echoes of Jesus’ coming as look at ‘the lamb’s blood shed’, and questioning whether there’s a higher purpose to that. Unlike the Magi, his eyes are focused on the ground, as he needs to pay attention to the sheep – stupid, mindless, and silly… When the angels appeared, fear filled the shepherds, but also a calm as they basked in the glory. An ordinary man, he stated that “normal will never be the same again”. They were so excited/convinced, that they left the sheep behind, raucously entered Bethlehem, then sat in calm silence admiring Jesus, unable to understand why God would visit ‘such a dismal place‘, but filled with something that overflowed so that they had to tell everyone that they met.

#Advent20

As Brian looks back to 1914, when the ‘light’ of humanity broke through the fighting in that ‘simple’ football match on the front at World War 1, he suggests:

Try this! Put down your weapons, today. Look for the good in someone else. Especially in your enemy, or someone you really don’t like. Watch for goodness breaking out in difficult conditions, and celebrate it. Gossip about it, thank people, and report the good news within the RSVPs! Try to rise up beyond your own entrenched position, and see what happens when you do.

#AdventBookClub: Casper and #Advent20

Casper

#AdventBookClub: Casper

Matthew 2:1-2, 10-12

Today, we have the story of one of the Magi, a man who had planned journeys for many others based upon the stars, but (according to this interpretation), this was the first time he’d felt the need to follow a star himself (a chance to ‘awaken the dream inside’).

Better to keep looking upwards, to chase after dreams and stumble, than only ever see the few steps in front of you and spend a lifetime going round in circles, getting nowhere fast.

He talks of the experience of travelling strange lands, meeting Herod (a mistake where they took their eyes from the stars, and focused upon maps), a man who “only wanted to hear what he needed in order to subvert and control”. As he met with the other wise men along the journey, he gives a sense of how, although they had faith in what they followed, they didn’t have certainty as to what they would find, describing them as ‘wise men behaving like fools’. What they found, a babe in a manger, was not what they expected from a King … but was “better” than what they expected

We were part of a drama so much bigger than ourselves; something we would probably never understand properly. We simply had to carry on faithfully playing our part.

As he questioned what ‘true wisdom’ was, he

… wondered if true wisdom might be this: to know what matters, and to rest secure in the peaceful affirmations of loving and of being loved.

Having met Jesus “the whole direction of our lives was changed”. As they left, rather than an ending, Casper felt that this was the beginning of something new.

#Advent20: Day 8

Advent is a time of waiting. Brian asks us what is the difference between waiting and wishing. If we wish that we could ‘magically escape’ our current situations, we may miss the opportunity to be present in the present moment. We typically dream of a ‘make-believe future where everything is all right’, or rosily remember a time in the past when all things were good… and then forget what’s good about here and now.

If we are ‘wishing’ for something, can we think about how we could turn that into something more hopeful (and active).

“Yes, my soul, find rest in God; for my hope comes from him”

#Advent20: Day 9

Again, on the theme of waiting – how can we be thankful that God is more patient than we are, and think how long he waits for us, and for so many aspects of his creation:

‘Our impatient age,’ says Bonhoeffer, ‘wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting – that is, of hopefully doing without – will never experience the full blessing of fulfilment.

‘For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait. It happens not here in a storm but according to the divine laws of sprouting, growing and becoming.’

Practically, we are encouraged to think those times where we are impatient (in queues), etc and seek a way to turn that time into something hopeful, restful and/or productive.

#AdventBookClub: Herod

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Matthew 2:3-8

So, under Herod the Great, we’ve already seen how ‘The Slaughter of the Innocents” affected the mothers (and presumably fathers), so let’s have a look inside Herod’s head!

Placed against the harrowing story of Rachel and her ‘grief to the bowels’, it’s quite a shock to come to the end of this chapter from Herod, and realise that he killed all the first sons under 2 years old for expediency, to ensure that he wouldn’t miss out killing Jesus, the threat that the Magi and the prophets had alerted him to (although as I understand it, he didn’t live to see Jesus’ ministry anyway). Herod believed that his power was threatened, that he had such a tenuous hold on power, that any threats needed to be stamped on quickly and comprehensively.

Herod was power-crazy, power-hungry, a megalomaniac, yes? A term that’s still applied to those in politics and other forms of power today. As Herod indicates, it’s a lonely place to be, and you take the responsibility for the decisions that you make when you don’t include others. When he welcomed the Magi, feasted them – Herod believed that he was using drink/food to loosen their tongues, but if we believe the prophets, this was how it was all meant to be (still an uncomfortable thought if leads to the slaughter), and the Magi, warned once they left, didn’t return to pass on further information. Herod’s problem here, was that he felt that he’d shown up publicly, in front of his people “made to look stupid, made to look weak”, and that “one painful cull and the problem solved”. There were fears about what the prophets had foretold, but ultimately, Herod believed that all these people were gullible, and therefore it was better to deal with “the problem” at the beginning (although clearly believing that it was a real enough problem that such drastic measures were needed).

See who else is blogging along at #adventbookclub, or see the tweets.

#AdventBookClub: Rachel & #Advent20: Appreciating the Dark

Luke 2 – 36-38

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Image from Wikipedia

One of those uncomfortable passages in the Bible “The Slaughter of the Innocents“, which is very uncomfortable to read, and even more so through the voice of Rachel, who graphically watches her 10 month old son’s throat slit in front of here because of Herod’s fear of Jesus as a challenger to his throne. Rachel indicates that she wishes no harm to Jesus, but wishes he hadn’t been born:

I stare, silently raging against the gathering blackness of the night. My light has gone out.

There’s a definite theme of light and darkness coming through here … can surely be few things as dark as watching the child you’ve given birth to murdered. Sometimes, we need a gentle light to come back in and help us contemplate:

Image from The Worship Cloud

Image from The Worship Cloud

From yesterday’s #Advent20 with Brian Draper (which makes me think of the candle we used the other week at retreats to signal that we were sitting down to eat, to focus on the beautiful food we were eating):

It gives, she says, of the materials of its outer form in order to release the heat and fragrance held within it. That’s when we see what a candle really is: ‘its outer life is tallow and wick; its inner life is flame.’ God, through Jesus, is surely our shining example: giving of himself, selflessly, luminously, to light the way.

In today’s email, Brian draws our attention to an article by Barbara Brown Taylor ‘In Praise of Darkness’, in which she highlights that she feels her life is more like the waxing and waning of the moon, rather than the steady light of the sun. We are often afraid of the (real and metaphorical) dark but:

Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.

We live in a world, however, where we seek to be distracted from the dark, learning from “gurus” how to be happy, how to eat/buy, etc. in order to shut out the darkness, rather than learning the lessons that it has to teach us. Taylor also indicates that there are theological problems with seeking to polarise light and dark (as most church liturgy does), identifying God with the sunny side of life, and leaving you on your own in the difficult times… tucking away those things out of sight, rather than dealing with (e.g. depression) in any meaningful sort of way. Such positive churches are brilliantly life-affirming when all is going well, but when things go wrong, you’ll be told “God won’t give you more than you can handle“, etc., and church won’t seem to be a place of refuge.

#AdventBookClub: Anna

Anna-from-womeninthebible

Source: Womeninthebible.com

Luke 2:36-38

I love the way this first chapter has been written, as a life story (and I’m always a bit of a sucker for those), knowing that ‘today’ she has met the Light of the World.

Anna, an old lady, widowed early, who sits in the Temple day and night (seen as a bit of a ‘crazy’), waiting for ‘the light’ to reach her – initially the sunlight, for which she waits, allowing herself to bathe in its presence … but she knows that she is waiting for something larger.

She sees that many come to the Temple seeing it as the destination, but she dreams that they will understand (or simply remember) that it was built to point to something greater, and not for its own sake.

She speaks of ‘today’, an ordinary day, in which a tired looking couple come in to have their firstborn male brought for the purification ritual. Simeon, who has been waiting for the fulfilment of a prophecy, now knows that his wait is over – he has seen the salvation of God, and the fulfilment of God’s promises to the whole world.

Jesus is described as the light – burning more brightly than the sun, which won’t burn us but kindle the fire in our hearts “a light that warms and consoles, illuminates and cheers” .. defeating all darkness… shining within us and revealing everything.

Anna sees what is to come for Jesus, the sorrows and the shadows, but she grieves that although many see her as the mad old woman shouting praises to God, that they won’t see the miracle in front of them. She talks of hurts and regrets remaining, but that they have been “illuminated, integrated and healed.” After such a meeting, the days following cannot be the same…

Brian Draper, on his #advent20 course, is also dealing with questions of dark and light, although with a particular encouragement to become comfortable with the dark (which Anna did in the Temple at night) – with a challenge to remove as much artificial light as possible and see what we notice, also noticing that in difficult circumstances (e.g. grief), the light that does shine through is even more powerful.

I can remember once, in prayer, soon after being diagnosed with depression, seeing a black night sky, in which one lone star twinkled as if this was the hope to cling on to… faith small as a mustard seed is enough.

Stephen Cottrell ‘Walking Backwards to Christmas’ #adventbookclub

If you’ve never joined an online book club, well, there’s still time. Pam Webster has pulled together material for #adventbookclub, drawing on Stephen Cottrell’s Walking Backwards to Christmas, published by SPCK.

I have written in the diary to read a chapter every couple of days, but last night I read the introduction. Recently I went to see Simon Callow in That Man Jesus, a one man play that uses the voices of those associated with Jesus to tell the story of Jesus. This was the first thought that came to mind as Stephen Cottrell mentioned that he wanted to retell the Christmas story, telling the story ‘backwards’, through the voices of the different characters involved in the drama of that day.

We become so familiar with “The Christmas story”, that we forget what it’s all about, so I’m hoping with this book to be challenged into seeing the story afresh (in both its light and dark elements) as we move through Advent, and love the promise that we’ll get ‘underneath the skin’ of the story and begin to see ourselves in it.

Meantime, daily, I will be also be reading Brian Draper’s Advent 20, which today encourages us 2-3 times per day to:

1. Stop. Bring yourself to a halt. A proper one. Be still.

2. Relax. Notice if you’ve any physical tension, and let your body relax.

3. Breathe. A little more slowly and deeply. It will reconnect you.

4. Smile. This is a good and important thing you’re doing.

Today we’re encouraged to take some time to ‘be in the dark’ (if possible getting away from light pollution), as we await the light.

I’m also completing the Simplify plan on YouVersion – thankfully short and simple itself, with just one thing to think about each day…

#AdventBookClub: Day 37: Endings

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So, here it is, the last day of #adventbookclub (for this year at least), – and it’s been great to have a focused time each day (I’ve never been very good at that!) By this time I should be in the air en route to Marrakech – hopefully for a bit of sun, plenty of relaxation/sleep and pottering.. hopefully nothing like the journey that Maggi experienced from Gatwick (where I’m starting from!). Maggi speaks of a journey of disruptions for the holy family and the Magi in order to avoid Herod, but also a sense that lives are changed and will move forward in a different way…

When I return, it’ll be back to getting #BIGRead14 sorted for Lent this year. It was named ‘The BIG Read’ in 2010 in the North-East, and I have since worked on 2 x Tom Wright books and 1 x Rowan Williams book. This time we’re using Stephen Cherry’s Barefoot Prayers and I am really hoping that a number of people will join us to engage with each day’s poems – seeking Biblical inspiration and creative outputs via art/poems, etc.: 

See also a few more questions with Stephen Cherry.

#AdventBookClub: Day 36: Inclusiveness

crucifixion - Redemption

As we looked at the other day, black/white answers to faith questions can be hard to take… today Maggi takes that even further – drawing on Matthew 2:1-8 – the Magi have often been described as ‘Kings’, but in fact may have been astrologers – something many of us would be uncomfortable with… but a reminder that it’s not up to us to judge who God welcomes, how, and with what questions – we are all included, at whatever stage of the journey we’re at.

#AdventBookClub: Day 35: Begin/End

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A simple thought from today, which had never occurred to me before today – significant events at the the beginning/end of Jesus’ life took place in borrowed rooms (the stable/the upper room) … Jesus ‘slummed it’ along with us – never making a home of his own.

Also totally understanding Maggi’s feeling re decluttering … too much stuff making me feel trapped/weighed down … although it has taken many years to declutter after many years of clutter, but ironically – having a place of my own has given the head space for that – no more “I’ll just hold onto it in case I want it in my own house”.

This saying has become very familiar:

Have-Nothing-In-Your-House

#AdventBookClub: Day 34: Redemption

Romans_3_22_25

Whilst we are still in a period of thinking about the birth of Jesus, there is also time to think about redemption – and that it’s available to all (and often through the ordinary times of life, which are then made extraordinary).

Redemption, however, is not painless:

The Christian gospel is not magic, wishing away all ills. It is given in incarnation, the inseparable fusing together of the human and divine, and grows at the same pace as all human life – slowly.

A lifelong journey of transformation… individually, and in community.

Talking of journeys – I’m heading down South today, and off to Marrakech on Monday, so the remainder of entries are pre-written!

#AdventBookClub: Day 33: Questioning

JUST_ASK_Icon

Today’s reading is really helpful – Maggi draws on Psalm 119:25-32 to deal with the question of whether it’s “better” to meet God via revelation (as the shepherd’s did), or via intellectual study (as the wise men did) … and that there is a “danger” in asking questions of our faith. My Winchester housegroup often discussed this, to this kind of end:

… I found that being allowed to believe in a God who could stand up to any amount of questioning, however, hard, made God seem more believable to me, not less… I was delighted to find that it was not only allowable to think very hard and ask any and every question, but that letting the awkward and answerable questions out into the open began to strengthen rather than weaken my faith.

Those questions will still be there, except that they will plague without answer. I’m very uncomfortable with people who have a black/white notion of all answers to faith:

The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know. — Socrates

#AdventBookClub: Day 32: Waiting

Photos taken whilst on photosafari to the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow

We can see what we’ve done, we can see the possibilities ahead. We can possibly:

arrive at the New Year with a sense that the horizon has once again fallen away; you may have a hunch that, once again, there is more life to live, more to do, more to find. We don’t always know quite what we’re waiting for. It seems to be part of the human condition that we get bored when we are too satisfied and, whenever one chapter of achievements or life events closes, we cannot rest too long before we sense that familiar feeling of reaching out for something more.

As 2014 has hit, do we have a sense of expectation, or a fear of the year ahead – once again I approach with both, but with a sense – echoed in Maggi’s next paragraph – that we are not sitting waiting for God’s thunder-bolds, but living the best that we know how in our lives as they are now, waiting with a  sense of hope and expectation.

#AdventBookClub: Day 31: Endings

End_of_route

We reach the end of 2013 today… and Maggi Dawn starts to deal with the topic of endings – how do books end, how do the 66 different books of the Bible end, particularly how does Mark’s gospel end?

The resurrection, rather than being tied to the time and place of the story, is left as an open book to the reader, who, rather than commemorating or disputing a moment in history, is given the chance to discover the reality of resurrection in their own experience.

As we head towards 2014, may you discover much of excellence in the year ahead!

#AdventBookClub: Day 30: Emptying Selves

Philippians 2:5-11

New Living Translation (NLT)

5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

6 Though he was God,[a]
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b];
he took the humble position of a slave[c]
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
8     he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Maggi Dawn notes that much brain energy/paper, etc. has been expended thinking about how God could become man and still remain God…

We are called to emulate Jesus in emptying self.. but in emptying self we must take care not to take a journey into slavery, rather than sainthood, remembering Mark 12:31…. for some, maybe a New Year’s Resolution for 2014?

Foot_washing_was_no_Joke_

We then look at Jesus cleaning the feet of others – if a servant he would largely have disappeared into the background, but this was as if the Prime Minister had taken over a menial task.

For us, then, our service of others and of God is not a means of validating others or gaining an identity. It’s the other way round.

#AdventBookClub: Day 29: Fear Not

you_are_with_me

Some thoughts from Maggi Dawn today

  • … the phrase ‘Fear Not’ appears 366 times in the Bible – one for every day of the longest year.
  • We cannot look in the face of God but we can look into the face of Jesus
  • Truly great people rise above the need to impress others with how great they are.
  • Sometimes we make the business of sharing faith far too complicated, as if we need to be world experts on the subject before we can open our mouths.
  • …the meaning of Christmas is that God loves us so much, he cannot bear to be without us..

How do we take the message of Christmas and act upon it … ensuring that it lasts throughout the year, and we don’t put it aside as ‘Christmas finishes’.