“And a little child shall lead them…” – reflecting on children’s participation at On Fire Mission

A few weeks ago, I went, as I do every year, to On Fire Mission Conference. There was the usual superb blend of the catholic and the charismatic, the spirit-filled and the sacramental, inspiring teaching and life-giving worship. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone, and booking is now open for next year’s conference…

But this year there was something else: children! I brought a box of resources, several parents brought their pre-school children (aged 10 months to 3 years), and God did something rather extraordinary. There were more fabulous, breath-taking, very-obviously-of-God moments than I can mention individually, but here are my reflections on the experience as a whole: 

 

When one of the speakers at Conference asked us to consider “where have you seen God’s glory alive and active this week?” my answer was obvious: here, on this rug on the floor at the front of the hall. The presence of children at Conference has revealed something more of God’s glory, something more of what it is to be fully alive in Christ, which could not have been revealed in an all-adult gathering.

Five years ago at Conference, I very clearly heard a word from God: “renewal, starting with children.” Just that. At the time, it didn’t make much sense. It has since been hugely significant in my own vocational journey, but now I realise that it could be important for On Fire as a whole as well. At the time I had a sense that the next wave of renewal (in a sacramental context, at least) would come from children – not from children’s work, or from adults ministering among children, but from children themselves, and the Holy Spirit working through them. At the time, it seemed too far-fetched even to talk about, except to a few. After experiencing this year’s Conference, it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

One of the greatest joys of this year’s Conference was the spontaneity with which the children engaged  with worship, and the way in which that drew in adults (including some of the more unlikely ones) to play and worship alongside them.

Play, as an aspect of worship and of spiritual life, seemed to me to be one of the gifts the children brought. I wonder how God might be calling us to develop our playfulness, and how that connects with what it means for us to be a sacramental and charismatic community? There is lots more that could be said about play as a gift of the Spirit, and about the sacramental dimension of play. Playing with God could certainly be an aspect of what it means to be “Called to Holiness” (next year’s conference theme).

Another dimension which I felt that the children brought to our worship was a greater freedom and spontaneity. They were, by and large, engaged with almost every aspect of worship but engaged very much on their own terms, which is exactly as it should be. Whether that was searching for sheep-themed stories and toys during the sermon, blowing bubbles for the intercessions, or lying on the floor to wait on the Spirit, it was apparent that they were participating in a shared encounter with God. More importantly, they were doing so as their authentic selves, not constrained by adult ideas of what worship should be like.

It seemed that children and adults together created a sort of ‘virtuous circle’. Because of the sense of openness already present in our worship at Conference – including the relaxed attitude of those presiding, preaching and otherwise leading worship – the children felt able to be fully themselves before God. Because of the freedom, spontaneity and playfulness demonstrated by the children, the adults (some of them at least) felt able to worship more freely themselves.

This was expressed most noticeably by adults ‘borrowing’ bubbles, ribbons, shakers, toys, etc and using them not ‘for the children’ but for their own worship. It was also evident in those adults who chose to join the children on the floor and/or to join in with their play and worship. These tendencies among the adults definitely increased as the week progressed, and they became less inhibited. It would be interesting to see what effect it would have if it were explicitly made clear at the start of Conference that things like bubbles and ribbons can be used by all ages, and that all are welcome to stand/sit/lie on the floor/dance/move around as they choose. I wonder what sort of holy chaos might ensue?!

Tied in with this freedom and authenticity in worship, I sense that God was showing us something important about what it means to be “Anointed for Action” (this year’s conference theme). It was evident in the children – and is equally true for all of us – that their vocation and anointing does not lie primarily in a particular action or ministry, but in being fully and truly their God-created selves. That is something which many of us adults find it hard to grasp about ourselves, and the lived example of the children among us could perhaps help us to understand it beyond any verbal, adult-led teaching on the subject. This might lead us to reflect on the balance between didactic and experiential elements to what we offer at Conference, and in the church more widely?

I feel that the presence of children at Conference this year has been an important turning point for On Fire (and perhaps the church more broadly). Again, as so often before, the phrase “renewal, starting with children” came back to me, but this time with the conviction that this is what it looks like, or at least the first steps of it, and that this is the direction in which God is calling us to travel.

I hope and pray that we can be brave enough to follow this call (in ways which will almost certainly require us to give up some of our adult illusions of being in control), trusting in the Holy Spirit and in what she is doing through the children in our midst.

 

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Church ‘upside down’: what if…

Sometimes you read a blog post (or an article, or a book…) which makes you just want to yell “YES!!! This!!! This is what the church needs to hear, this is what the church needs to be.” For me, Rev’d Al Barrett’s post “Church ‘outside in’: what if…” is one such post.

But I want to go a step further. I want to ask another “what if…” question: what if, as well as being turned ‘outside in’, the church were to be turned ‘upside down’?

Regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to hear that what I’m thinking about here is the position of children in the church. Al writes: “I have a hunch there’s something significant here about children too.” Too right! But I’d go further. I have a hunch that in re-imagining the church ‘outside-in’, in dreaming of an ecclesiology which radically disrupts the accepted flow of power, we need to start with children.

Church is adult-centred. Church is built on the assumption that adults are better, stronger, more mature, more knowledgeable, wiser, more capable than children. Church is (in common with most of society) a structure which creates what adults need – or what it believes adults need – and then (hopefully) tries to fit children in, either by adding something on, or by adapting the ‘adult stuff’ to include them.

Some churches are more obviously like this than others. Some may be reading this and thinking “not my church, surely not!” If that’s you, I would ask you: who is your furniture designed for? whose head-hight are your notice boards at? who is on your PCC (or equivalent)? who wrote your last parish profile? I’m guessing it’s not children.

Some churches are very good at including children. That is not the same as centring children.

What would a truly child-centred church look like? I don’t know. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to catch glimpses of it, bubbling away beneath the adult veneer of “church”. I’d like to get closer to finding out what it could really be like. In the meantime, here are some of my “what if”s…

What if adults viewed and treated children as spiritual equals? A lot of churches and a lot of adult Christians have (thankfully) moved beyond seeing children’s contributions as “cute” to realising that God speaks to us profoundly through the words and actions of the children God has placed in our midst. But is there a danger that “deep” has become the new “cute”? That rather than adorable soundbites we are now looking for profound soundbites from our children. When we really see someone as an equal disciple, a fellow-pilgrim, we look holistically at who they are – not just what they can teach us or what we can teach them. What if relationships between adults and children within the church were less about who can teach what to whom, and more about what we can all learn together from, and about, God? More about being-together, more about recognising God in each other and in the space between us.

What if children, including the youngest children, shaped the worship of the church? I am very fortunate that my worship is often, to some extent, shaped by the children with whom I worship. Recently, I was worshiping in a predominantly adult congregation, alongside a 10 month old friend. He was lying on the floor watching an older child blowing bubbles during a contemplative part of the service. So was I. When the service moved on, I thought we should sit up and ‘join in’ – but he didn’t (and, as he was lying on me, nor did I). That part of the worship hadn’t finished for him yet, and he didn’t feel compelled to move on when everyone else did. If worship was shaped by children, I think the whole pace and tone would be very different – freer, less constrained, more chaotic, more ready follow the promptings of the spirit, and in less of a hurry to explain or put into words the mysterious experience of the Divine.

What if we all became a bit more like children? It’s what Jesus says – “unless you change and become like one of these little ones, you will never enter the kingdom”. But we adults find that change so very hard to make. Perhaps it is because children don’t value the things we have come to value – intelligence, experience, knowledge, power, privilege, responsibility… And if we don’t have those things, those ways of measuring ourselves (and others) how will we know who we are? We’ll have to fall back on the realisation that who we are is nothing to do with any of that after all – that being human is being made and loved by God, in God’s image. Full stop. Which is, of course, exactly what we need…

What if we cared less about adult ways of doing things? “Am I doing this right?” is a question which occupies a lot of our time as adults, and one which we impose on children at an alarmingly young age. But if you look at my 10 month old friend lying on the floor in the middle of worship, I’m pretty sure it’s a question that has never crossed his mind (and long may that continue). I also see little or no evidence that it is a question with which God is greatly concerned.

What if the church could let go of its adult anxieties and embrace uncertainty? “But we can’t do that – it would lead to chaos” is one of the objections I hear most about any steps to make the church more child-centred. I suspect it is a frequent objection to anything which disrupts the flow of power. Sometimes I have made changes which lead to chaos. More often I have been too afraid or too constrained by expectations. We need more of the holy, God-revealing chaos which shatters our illusions of being in control.

What if all this was reflected in the structure of the church? Returning to the original topic of Al’s blog post, I reckon an ‘upside down’ church would necessarily be an ‘outside in’ church as well. Among the many criticisms which could be leveled at the current ‘inside out’ model, it is very definitely an ‘adult’ way of being. I can’t see relationships which flow from “the powerful”, from “the centre” outwards, having any place in a church which takes seriously Jesus’ teaching about the place of children in the kingdom.

Church, at its best, puts Jesus in the centre. And Jesus, in one of his clearest pieces of teaching, puts a child in our midst, and tells us “change, and become like this”. A church which truly followed that teaching, a child-like, child-centred (dare we even imagine child-led) church, would radically disrupt the structures of power within and beyond the church. It would break down all our adult-centred notions, of “them and us”, of “how things are done”, of “what works” and “what’s possible”. It would tell a new story, sing a new song, about who we are and who God is. It would be a Magnificat sort of church – raising the humble, putting down the proud, and proclaiming the glory of God.

Come, Holy Spirit…..

“Abide in me” – a sermon for Easter 5

“Abide in me” says Jesus, “as I abide in you.” And he uses this striking image of the vine and its branches.

What does it mean to abide in Jesus?

‘Abide’ is an interesting word. It’s not just about being friends with Jesus, or spending time with him. It’s something deeper, more rooted and grounded, more intimate than that. The branches of the vine are not just close it, they are part of it, just as we are part of the body of Christ.

And what does it mean to abide in the risen Jesus?

“We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song.”

What does it mean to abide in Easter, to dwell in the resurrection, to know ourselves to be part of the risen Christ? One of the things I think being an Easter people must mean is that we make ‘alleluia’ our song in all things – in times of difficulty or sorrow or grief, as well as in the more obvious alleluia moments. Because in all those darker times, Jesus is still risen, we are still an Easter people.

I noticed this year that the ‘alleluia’ banner which the children made at Ark has sad faces on as well as happy ones. I was surprised by that at first, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. It speaks to me of a God who is as present and as risen in our pain as in our joy.

Easter, as we know, is not just a day, but a season. Perhaps that is because we need time to discover how to abide in it, to know the resurrection as a state of being rather than an historical event, to know the risen Jesus whose body we are part of.

We need time to learn what it is to be an Easter people, because alleluia is not always an easy song to sing. When we hear terrible, shocking news like we heard this morning, we may not feel much like singing alleluia. When we see friends or family suffering, when we ourselves suffer, through bereavement or bullying, mental or physical illness, it can be hard to feel like an Easter people. When we look at the world around us and see unjust immigration laws, and underfunded schools, and countries poised on the brink of war, and people going without food when others have so much, we may not feel much like singing at all.

But we sing alleluia because we have Good News to share. And that good news – that perfect love not only casts out fear, but has already overcome all evil, even death, in the resurrection of Jesus – is good news forever. It is good news which doesn’t depend on the circumstances, which doesn’t fade or change, even when everything else around us seems to be changing.

Jesus is risen still bearing his wounds. We, his body, participate in the resurrection still bearing our wounds. Being an Easter people, with ‘alleluia’ as our song, is not about “making it all ok”, and certainly not about pretending it’s all ok when it isn’t. Rather it is about a deep transformation towards God-reliant life in all its fullness, a transformation which can only be brought about by the Holy Spirit, abiding in us as Jesus has promised.

As we are transformed by abiding in Jesus, so we transform the world by abiding in it as the body of Christ. That is why we must live out the resurrection in ways which bring hope and show love, sharing our alleluia song.

We are the body of Christ, a risen body, bearing the marks of suffering, the wounds and the scars, but redeemed even in our brokenness and grief by the glory of God’s Holy Spirit abiding in us. It is only from that place of ongoing, lived transformation and resurrection that we are able to sing, and to keep singing: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

 

Justice, love, and bananas – a sermon for Mothering Sunday

A sermon on Mark 7.24-30.

Happy Mothering Sunday! Or, perhaps not. For some, this is a happy day, when we celebrate and thank our mothers, and tell them how much we love them. For some of us, it’s a sad day, when we mourn mothers or children who are no longer with us. For some of us, it’s uncomfortable day, when we feel we don’t fit in, or can’t participate, for a whole host of reasons. All of that is part of Mothering Sunday, because all of that, the whole range of human emotion, is part of the way people relate to each other.

But if you look at the card displays in the shops, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all – Mothering Sunday, relationships between mothers and children, between any of us – all much simpler, fluffier and more two-dimensional than that. You could be forgiven for thinking that being a mother is all about cooking the dinner, cleaning the house, enjoying a glass or two of wine and – above all – being the “Perfect Mum”, “Best Mummy Ever”, just like all the cards say.

Hopefully we can all see beyond those stereotypes, can all recognise that mothering, whether it’s done by our biological mothers or others, is very much more than that.

Certainly today’s gospel reading should challenge any twee images of motherhood, along with any lingering ideas that ‘Biblical womanhood’ is something meek, submissive, or bland. Here we see a woman, a mother, challenging a man – challenging Jesus himself – and standing up for her child. It’s a risky thing to do. But she’s prepared to take that risk, to make herself vulnerable, in order to stand up for justice, and for the daughter she loves. She’s brave, she’s feisty, and she’s not about to take any rubbish from anyone.

I want to tell you about another mother, who perhaps has something in common with the Syrophonecian woman. This week is Fairtrade Fortnight, and the woman I want to tell you about is a Fairtrade Farmer called Rosemary. She’s a 43 year old widow with 3 children, and she grows bananas. This is what she has to say about Fairtrade:

Being a single parent, a permanent employment contract and a secure income is incredibly important to me and my children.

Fairtrade has changed a lot, Women and men now have the same rights. There are regular working hours, fixed leave days, and significantly improved safety regulations. It is especially important for the women workers, as they were often not aware of their rights. Now they are much stronger than before.

I am happy and proud that my sons have been able to study. Fairtrade has had a very positive impact not only on our working conditions, but also on our family life,

Rosemary, like the woman in our gospel story, is involved in standing up for justice for herself and her children. For both mothers, their willingness to speak out, to stand up for their children, and to seek justice for them, is part of how they show their love for their children. It’s all a long way from your typical Mother’s Day card, isn’t it?

But it’s not a long way from the love of God – not at all. In God’s kingdom, love and justice are very closely connected indeed. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,” says God through the prophet Isaiah. “Let justice roll down like waters,” says Amos. And the prophet Micah couldn’t be clearer: “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Jesus himself is very often shown standing up for the people who find themselves on the receiving end of injustice.

Commanded by God, with Jesus as our example, we are called to justice, to make justice part of the way we love our neighbour. But how? The injustices which surround us can seem too huge to know how to start tackling them: poverty, homelessness, violence, inequality, discrimination. But we can and must do our part to stand up for justice, like the two mothers we have heard about today.

One of the ways we can do that is by supporting movements like Fairtrade which, as we have seen, make a huge difference to farmers like Rosemary and their families and communities. But there is still a very long way to go before all the people who produce our food live in the conditions we would want for our neighbours. We all have a part to play in seeking justice through the choices we make when we buy food and other things.

Another way we can make seeking justice part of the way we love is by speaking out against unjust situations. Many people in our local community are speaking out at the moment against plans to close our local children’s centres. Many are mothers, many are not, all are driven by care, concern, love for local children and families, and a desire to see a just allocation of resources, especially for the most vulnerable families.

“Let justice roll down like waters.” Our small attempts to make the world more just may seem tiny, not enough to make a difference. But if justice is to roll down like waters, an ever-living stream, then that stream of water must be made up of a million tiny droplets – each of our individual actions and prayers joining together to become an unstoppable force, a tidal wave of grace, the kingdom of God breaking through.

Amen.

Recognising Jesus – a sermon for Candlemas

What is the longest you have ever had to wait for something? How does it feel to wait for a long time? How do you feel when that long-awaited thing is finally here?

Now picture Simeon, in the temple. He had been waiting years and years for what he had been promised by God – that he would see the Messiah. And now, at last, the moment had come. Among all the crowds, all the other parents bringing their new babies to the temple, Simeon saw the one he had been waiting for, that one special baby, Jesus, the Messiah.

There is a moment, a moment of recognition, when Simeon looks into the face of this little baby, and sees God. We don’t know exactly what it was he recognised, what divine spark he saw, how the holy spirit spoke to him in that moment. But that moment of recognition is key – it’s key to today’s celebration of Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – but it’s also the first of a series of moments in the gospels when people recognise Jesus for who he really is.

Peter: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah.” Mary Magdalen: “I have seen the Lord.” Doubting Thomas: “My Lord and my God.” (Not-so-doubting anymore.)

Perhaps you can relate to those moments of recognition. I wonder if you can think of a time when you have recognised Jesus? Or realised something about who Jesus is? Maybe a sudden “aha” moment, or maybe the slow dawning realisation that Jesus is who he says he is; the son of God, the Messiah, God made flesh, God with us, the Light of the World.

Today we celebrate the recognition of Jesus as “a light to reveal God to the nations”. But the light, and the revelation of that light, doesn’t stop there. Each of us in our baptism is given the light of Christ, and we must take seriously our call as the body of Christ to “shine as lights in the world to the glory of God”.

[Light candles from central candle.]

The light spreads and multiplies, and the more light there is, the more we can shine God’s light in a world which often seems rather dark and dismal, the greater the chance of people seeing that light and recognising it for what it is.

Jesus became like us – “flesh and blood”, as we heard in our first reading – so that we can recognise him in his divine human body, and recognise the divinity in our own fragile humanity, the spark of God’s Holy Spirit in each of us.

It may be hard to recognise ourselves – and each other – as bearers of the divine image, made and known and loved by God, carriers of the Christ-light, filled with the Holy Spirit. But that is the reality. And until we learn to recognise ourselves as who we truly are in Christ, we will find it very hard to show others who Christ truly is in us.

There is a wonderful moment in an episode of Dr Who, where the Doctor asks “who’s that?” and receives the reply “no-one important”. His response is brilliant: “in 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

It can be tempting to think of ourselves as “not important”, not clever enough, not old enough, not good enough. But that’s not true. You are important. You do matter. You matter so much to the God who created the whole universe that he was born as a vulnerable baby, lived a very human life, died and rose again, for you – so that you can know how loved you are and how important you are. The truth is, each of us is vitally important in God’s plan for the salvation and transformation of the world. Each of us has a role to play, a calling to fulfil.

We may recognise Jesus in many places and people, in ways that amaze or challenge us. I know I have done, and will no doubt go on doing so. But we must also learn to recognise Jesus in ourselves, in the work of the Holy Spirit in each of us. Recognising God – in ourselves, in the world around us, in the sound of sheer silence, and in the busyness of life in all its fullness – is the work of a lifetime. May God give us grace to recognise those glimpses of glory. Amen.

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred” – sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday of Christmas

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

When Paul talks about how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son”, he’s not talking about a God who magically lifts us out of whatever mess we find ourselves in, but one who gets stuck into all life’s mess and complexity with us. This isn’t God as superhero, but #GodWithUs, God deeply and compassionately with us. This is the Good News that we have a God who ‘gets it’, gets what it is to be human, to struggle, to hurt, to laugh, to love.

The great change brought about by the incarnation is that the divine becomes human, and so the human can be recognised as divine.

Every aspect of human life is touched by God – “life in all its fullness”.- our laughter, our tears, our fears, our anger, our hopes, our complicated, messy relationships. All of it. Jesus comes to give us life in all its fullness, and to call us recognise in all the fullness of life something of God,

That’s not always easy to do, of course. We have a very human tendency to categorise things, and all too often people. Good. Bad. Naughty. Nice. Worthy. Unworthy. And yet, we know that isn’t how God sees things – in Jesus even the boundary between humanity and divinity is destroyed. How then can any other boundaries remain?

Even as we try to do the right thing, to be just and compassionate, it’s very tempting to start putting things (and people) into boxes. It’s often easier to be sympathetic at a distance, to help ‘those people over there’, and ignore the needs of those closest to us, or our own needs. It’s all too easy to dress up what God calls us to do in fancy language, and be so busy looking for the next ‘missional opportunity’, that we fail to notice the person right in front of us.

We can come up with all the strategies and resolutions and plans we like, but in the end it really isn’t that complicated (which isn’t to say it’s easy – far from it). Jesus calls us to be a church that ‘gets stuck in’. Pope Francis wrote: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Challenging words. God is a God who in the incarnation ‘gets stuck in’ to all the messiness of what it is to be human and, in the very person of Jesus as well as in his words, calls us to do likewise.

Isaiah in our first reading proclaims not only the first coming of Jesus (as we have heard throughout advent) but also the second coming, the realisation of God’s kingdom on earth.

I wonder what New Years Resolutions we might make which promote the realisation of God’s kingdom on earth? In our local communities, our families, our homes, our church, – not by grand schemes but getting stuck in’ in all the little ways which – together – change lives, and turn the world upside down.

The truth of the incarnation, God made flesh, God with us, is that God works through people is this: There is nobody and no circumstance too lowly or too ordinary for God. There is no human situation, no part of the human condition, in which God is not present. God works through people – little, ordinary people – to redeem all things and draw all people back to the God who created them. It is the calling of the church – of each of us – see what God is doing, and get stuck in, whatever form that takes, and whatever words we use (or don’t use) to describe it.

“There is nothing so secular it cannot be sacred”, nothing so human it cannot be divine, nobody so human, so lowly, so flawed and broken that they do not contain the image of God. In a stable long ago, very ordinary people recognised God in the very ordinary stuff of human life. God is still here, still present in the mess and muddle of our human lives. The realisation of that, of God made just as human, as fragile, as vulnerable as we are, will change our lives if we’ll let it, as we learn to recognise God in ourselves, in each other, in whatever mess we find ourselves in.

Each year, as we hear again the familiar Christmas story, and reflect on the year that is ending and the one about to start, we have a fresh chance to consider how this deep truth of the incarnation touches our lives now. Where is God in this mess, this muddle? Where, in this ordinary little bit of human life which I find myself in right now, is the glory of God? May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear the sacred presence of God in every ordinary human thing, this Christmas and always.

Amen.

#advent bookclub Day 17: The Wise Men

Recognising God can be a tricky business (not helped by God’s tendency to show up in the most surprising people and places). But in the Christian life, the recognition of God is a vital skill to cultivate, and one which comes only with practice.

My own life has been marked by moments of recognising God only with the benefit of hindsight, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one: “Ah, I see now, that was God all along!” I have a wise friend who helped me very much in the long journey of learning to recognise God in the moment. Something would occur, I would tell her about it, and she would remark quite casually “That’ll be the Holy Spirit, that will.” And almost always I could immediately see that she was right – what I had described was indeed the Holy Spirit, but I needed someone to point it out to me.

This work of not only recognising but also pointing out where God is and what God might be doing is a vital one. I wrote earlier this week about a Special School I work with.  This is one of the places where I most clearly recognise God, and I have gradually come to realise that pointing out what I see of God in that place is part of how I can invite the staff and students to encounter God themselves. I don’t somehow bring God in with me, nor do I (nor could I) somehow make God more present, I merely point out where God already is. I may even have been known to use the phrase “That’ll be the Holy Spirit, that will” myself.

“May the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting” we pray during Advent. The watching is at least as important as the waiting – watching for God, recognising God, pointing out what we have seen and known and experienced of God.


This year for Advent Book Club we are reading “Unearthly Beauty” by Magdalen Smith. Join in on Facebook or Twitter using #AdventBookClub.