#adventbookclub Day 7: Nicholas

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.

I have heard this verse at least twice this week, sung by children, staff and parents from two very different schools. One is a quite prestigious independent school, with a largely very privileged intake, the other is a once-failing (but now very much on the up) state primary, with a deprived catchment area, and as diverse a community as you can imagine.

This has led me to ponder a bit about gifts and giving. The children at those two very different schools are, I should think, likely to receive very different things for Christmas (if they receive anything). But both groups of children came into church with gifts to give – not material gifts, but gifts of music, dancing, storytelling, drama, singing. And despite the very unequal opportunities they have received, those gifts were, broadly speaking, very similar. Certainly more similar than different.

And in bringing the gift mentioned in the carol – themselves – there is no distinction at all between the two groups. All are equally valued, equally precious, equally loved by God.

So although the gifts these children (and all of us) receive may be very different, the most precious gift we have to give – ourselves – is the thing that reveals our shared, equal humanity.

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


#adventbookclub Day 6: Nicholas Ferrar

“Family is the people God gives us to love.”

I can’t remember where I picked up that phrase. I think it might have been in a sermon I heard some years back, and I’ve since used it in a couple of my own sermons. It seems like a good way of encapsulating all the many and varied types of family, in a way which values them all equally.

Or, to put it another way, family is the people with whom we gather around the table. In the case of the “church family”, it’s the people who gather around the table for communion, the communion of saints. And that table is not ours to invite or not-invite people to – it’s God’s. Jesus invites all manner of people, and we may very well find ourselves in uncomfortable company. But we are invited, and they are invited (whoever ‘they’ may be). Like any family, there are tension and arguments and people storming out, but there’s also laughter and shared memories and – above all – love.

Whatever tables we gather around this Christmas, whatever family we share them with, may there always be space for the unseen guest, the one who is Love, who invites us all to his table.

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

#adventbookclub Day 5: John of Damascus

After reading about John’s defense of “matter” as an aid to worship (but not the object of worship itself), I set out to lead my first school Carol Service of the year. What’s the connection there, you might be wondering?

Well, there, before my eyes, all manner of “matter” – cardboard, teatowels, curtains-turned-cloaks, tinsel (so much tinsel!) and the obligatory plastic baby doll – drew people, myself included, more deeply into the awe and wonder of encountering the living, incarnate God. As the shepherds, wise men, angels, and even the sheep, took turns to bow before the manger and take their place in the tableau, it was obvious that the “stuff” had become very much more than “stuff”. It had become the stuff of worship, revealing something far greater than the sum of its parts.

I don’t know what John of Damascus would have made of cotton-wool sheep costumes and glittery paper stars as an aid to worship. In some ways its a far cry from the beautiful, prayerful icons he venerated and defended so vigorously. But in another sense, it’s all part of the same continuum. It’s all about using the “matter” at hand to get to the heart of the matter, to draw nearer to the heart of God.

So, tinsel or icons, glitter or statues, whatever helps us draw nearer to God in worship, let us celebrate as a gift from God, who longs for us to draw near, as God draws near to us is the “matter” of human flesh.

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

“Catching a glimpse of the light of Christ” – a Christmas talk for school carol services

Each year, it is my privilege and pleasure to welcome hundreds of children and their parents and teachers to church for their school carol services. This is the basic talk I will use for each of this year’s 10 school services, adapting it to each context and age group. 

Welcome to All Saints Church for this very special Christmas service. I hope – and having seen the rehearsals, I’m confident – that this evening will be one of great joy and excitement as we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

As we hear that great story unfold here tonight, I pray that you will experience the joy and hope which is born of knowing that, in the person of the tiniest, poorest, lowliest child, God is present. And in the presence of God is the fullness of love.

I pray that the Christmas joy we experience opens our eyes to see God among us in the world. The God whom we worship in the manger is all around – in refugees, the homeless, and all who have nowhere to lay their head; in unconventional families, in parents and children facing hardship; in the poorest, and in the wisest – and in us.

The poet Elizabeth Barratt Browning said:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

This evening, I invite you to be among those who turn aside from the everyday things, put down our ordinary concerns, our pre-Christmas busyness, for a little while, and enter into the awe and mystery of the incarnation – God made human in Jesus, the light of the world.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” Here – in the music, the readings – we catch a glimpse of the light of Christ. And when we go from here, we have that light to take with us – that joy and peace which comes from God – to carry with us into our Christmas celebrations and beyond.

#adventbookclub Day 4: Francis Xavier

Today I spent much of my morning in a meeting considering the future of mission in this Benefice. Maps were drawn, lists were made, various plans and concerns were discussed and debated. The phrase “engaging stakeholders in mission-focused strategies, going forward” was uttered without irony.

But in the end, as one of my colleagues eventually reminded us, it really is remarkably simple. There are people in this area who don’t know Jesus – lots of them. Many of them have never had an opportunity to hear the gospel and consider what it might mean to them. It’s up to us to do something about that – “go, and make disciples of all people”.

Francis Xavier’s simple basis for his missionary work – there are people who haven’t heard the gospel, so he went to where they were and told them – is one we would do well to remember.

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

#adventbookclub Day 3: Charles de Foucauld

I love the importance Charles de Foucault attaches to living with rather than for the deprived communities in which he immersed himself. It seems to me that this is something we, the church, are very good at paying lip service to, but terribly bad at really doing.

We talk a lot about inviting people – inviting our friends and neighbours to our Christmas services, putting on “outreach” events to invite people to. But there is something vitally important in accepting the hospitality of others, as well as offering hospitality ourselves. Perhaps it is more comfortable to play the host, than to accept the strange ministry of being a guest – of just ‘being’ in an environment which is not ours, of graciously accepting what others provide.

In the incarnation, Jesus doesn’t invite us into something of his own, but enters our world, on our terms, to meet us where we can see and accept who he truly is, and who we really are in his presence. I wonder what we can learn from his example about the ministry of being a gracious guest?

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

#adventbookclub Day 2: Andrew

The thing I like about Andrew – and his brother Peter as well – is the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary. Ordinary bloke, or extraordinary visionary? The answer is both. As so often in God’s kingdom, the truth is in the paradox, the ‘both… and’.

In this Advent season, we live with a heightened awareness of the greatest paradox or all – the ‘now and not-yet’ of God’s kingdom, the Jesus who has come and who is coming at an unexpected hour. I wonder what the ordinary/extraordinary Andrew can teach us about living in the tension of that paradox?


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