The man who carved Christmas

I love to collect nativity sets: big ones;small ones; funny ones and strange ones. I bought a new one last week, and out of it fell a lovely smiley wooden sheep. When I turned it over in my hand, it reminded me of an old story about the man who carved Christmas. It’s a story about a little wooden donkey, a little wooden sheep, a little wooden cow and a little wooden camel…and I want to tell it to you now.

The story takes place long, long ago, when a monk from Germany left his home and walked all the way to Spain. His name was Foilan, and he wasn’t quite sure how to go about things.

He wasn’t very clever with words, and he wasn’t very impressive to look at. In fact, most of the grown-ups took no notice of him at all. With the children, though, it was a different story.

You see, Foilan loved nothing more than to sit by the fire, take an old piece of wood, and carve it into a little wooden animal. He would carve ducks, and pigs and dogs, and cats and give them to the children.

One day, as they sat by the fire, Foilan carved a donkey – but he didn’t give it away. “That’s for Mary”, he said – “to ride to Bethlehem.” The children looked at one another and said ‘there’s no Mary here’. There was a an Alys and a Rita….but no Mary. “She’ll need it, he said, to ride to Bethlehem”, and put it on one side.

Next time they were all gathered round the fire he made a sheep. The children laughed. “Why make a sheep”, they said “we have so many of them here”. “I need a sheep to sit with the shepherds when the angel comes”, he explained, and set it aside. Next day it was a cow he made, and he explained to the children – “the cow will have to step aside when the baby comes” and they scratched their heads at what he said.

Now there was a little collection beside his fire – a little wooden donkey, a little wooden sheep, and a little wooden cow. When the children came running to sit by the fire, their breath like smoke in the cold night air, he was just finishing another animal. This time, it was a camel – and he had to tell the children its name as they had never seen such a creature before. “The great kings will need their camels”, he said “to travel far and far so they can see the baby”

By now the children were bursting to know just what the story was all about – so he told them.

He told them about Mary, who rode a donkey to Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus would be born. He told them about the sheep – who looked on as the shepherds met an angel. He told them about the cow, who stepped aside to make room in the stable, so that baby Jesus had somewhere to lay his head. He told them about the kings who rode from far far away on their camels to see the baby king.

When the children came next day – Foilan’s fire was all gone. Wherever could he be? They looked and saw a commotion further down the road where two paths met. Into the fork of a tree Foilan had placed a little wooden stable, with a little wooden donkey, a little wooden sheep, a little wooden cow and a little wooden camel. The grown-ups couldn’t make head nor tail of what it all meant…but the children could, and they told them the story.

To be quite honest, they are still doing it now. Now that you know the story of Foilan, the man who carved Christmas…you can do it too.



A moment to be grateful

This has been a weekend of celebrations for #Open10 – the celebration of ten years since Teddngton Baptist Church opened our newly developed buildings to the community. On Saturday we had an ‘open house’. celebrating all the partnerships we have built up with different groups within the community over the years. There were aid agencies, social care groups,  a musical theatre session, an art workshop, a nursery rhymes session, stories and wonderful food cooked by local cafes.

This morning we started our service in the atrium – the heart of the redeveloped building. On March 2nd 2003, when we first started raising funds for this ambitious project, we sang ‘I believe in Jesus’ – declaring that the day would come when we would sing it in the new building.  On November 21st 2004 we did exactly that – our voices curling up into the heights of the new two-storey atrium. This morning, we sang it again – ten years on. This is not the sound of a choir – but the sound of a diverse family, forged out of shared experience and held together by the love of Christ. It is, in every sense, music to my ears:


After that, we went back into the church and worshipped together. Two of our children’s groups had worked on separate sections of a large picture of the church. Individual children worked on small panels, and this morning it all came together. What is not to love about this spectacularly colourful picture of the church?

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size


In the evening a smaller number gathered to give thanks for blessings past. As each shared their story, or insight, or verse, they added a brick to the sculpture below. With the lights out we looked at this quirky, precarious, glorious structure, and thanked God for…the church.



Serendipity redeems an orb

Two days ago, I was idly watching the TV advert below. I didn’t even have the volume up – but something caught my eye:

Before going to bed I wrote a note to ‘try photo with paperweight’.  We are in the midst of a rather special birthday at the church where I work, so some kind of quirky photo celebrating the light and beauty of the building could be just right . Yesterday morning, in between stampedes of buggies and babies down the church atrium, I placed my little paperweight on the floor and took a string of images.  Some of them have captured the green plants or the warm brick walls, some have captured the space in different ways – but the one below is the gem. To me, on this special celebration weekend, the rainbow reflections are a symbol of all the colour and light which the building facilitates.

The funny thing is, that paperweight has been relegated to a distant shelf for years. In my previous job I had floor to ceiling windows in my office. I came back from a lunchtime meeting one day and noticed whilst on the phone that there was a wisp of smoke curling up from the desk. It turned out that the sun had focused through my little paperweight and started to melt my desk tidy! I feel this simple orb of glass has more than redeemed itself now.

Do you agree?


CLICK for full size



A day to be thankful

Ten years ago today, Teddington Baptist Church opened the doors of its newly redeveloped buildings to the local community.

The Mayor of Richmond helped me to cut the ribbon:



A jazz band played in the lofty new space:

Turkey 013

A new story began…

Ten years on, it is time to celebrate that story.  Over the passage of those years thousands of feet have made their way up and down the atrium. It has played host to:

Art exhibitions

Christmas trees

A sailing boat

An exhibition on forgiveness

A small business fair



Gatherings for prayer and worship …and so many other things too.

It can now be visited on a 360 degree Google Tour and is recognized throughout the local area.

How best to celebrate those ten years?  In the end, much like the symbolic act of Mayor and Minister cutting the ribbon together – we have opted for an event which celebrates partnership. Throughout the day on Saturday November 22nd, the church will play host to other organisations alongside a shop window to its own work. There will be open sessions by Go Glee, Kumon and Jo Jingles (three of those who regularly hire the building), exhibitions by some of our weekday users, a free art workshop hosted by an artist who helped to design the facilities, storytelling by the church’s Early Years worker, two Songs of Praise sessions, and a food court provided by Diners’s Delight, Love U Mum and Fallow Deer Cafe – three of our local food outlets. This has been a shared story with our local community – and we want to mark it that way.

Wish us Happy Birthday, if you’re passing, and if you are too far away to do so – why not send a birthday greeting via the comments box below?


…on holy ground

Regular readers of this blog (or at least those who regularly read it in December) will know that I am a big fan of Christmas ads. I have commented on their cleverness and used them in carol services on more than one occasion. I have to say that I shall not be doing the same with this year’s offering by Sainsbury’s. Their beautifully crafted depiction of the December 1914 Christmas truce seems to me a bridge too far. No matter that they will be donating to the Royal British Legion, it still seems like a shameless commercialisation of a moment and a place once covered in the blood of the fallen.

For that reason, I shall not be using any of the Christian campaigns making use of the story either. The story should be told, by all means, but not pressed into anybody’s service. If I were to tell the story and sing the specially commissioned 100-year-anniversary version of Silent Night, what do I say about the fact that the harmony only lasted until dawn?  If I use this as a cipher for the power of the Christmas message, am I not suggesting that such power may last only for a moment?

Would love to know what others think…

Image: BBC

Perspectives on the Prodigal Son

Ever since I first became a Christian over 30 years ago, the story of the Prodigal Son has been familiar territory.  I have re-enacted it, studied it, read it and preached on it. I have thought about it as the story of a lost son, a longing father and a disenfranchised brother. At one stage in my life I felt convicted to preach on the second half of the story wherever I went with a sermon entitled ‘The elder brother syndrome’.  The sermon was a call on the church to open not only doors but hearts to those who have been lost and found. We must genuinely embrace them, rather than gritting our teeth and waiting for them to fall in line.

Last night I attended a small group in our church where the subject for discussion was this old familiar parable. Here’s the thing, though. With all the predictability of a big ship swinging inexorably in the tide, the conversation drifted towards the elder brother. Quickly leaving the familiar ground of the prodigal son himself behind, we came to the elder brother. We ended up discussing how he felt, why he behaved as he did, and what might have been going through his mind.

Why is it that we always end up discussing this character in the story? I have seen it happen in groups at home and abroad, with Christians of all ages.  Is it because we resent his presence in the story, or because we catch sight of him in the mirror as we pass by, I wonder?

I would love to know if others have experienced the same thing…


Then and now

Late September 2003, and Teddington Baptist Church were bracing themselves for months of disruption as a long-awaited redevelopment kicked off in the new year. We had prayed, planned, and given, and now thoughts started turning to life after the builders moved out.  What would life be like in this new church for which we had longed? On a day’s retreat at my beloved St Matthew’s Convent in Ham I felt ‘inspired’ to write ‘A day in the Life of Teddington Baptist Church’, set in October 2005. This was intended as a glimpse of what the future might bring. The years have rolled by, and a version of the ‘future’ described 11 years ago has happened. Every object in the picture below tells a story:

  1. A Day in the life of Teddington Baptist church – a small booklet describing life in the then un-built new building.
  2. Opening ceremony invitation, November 20th 2004
  3. Scissors and ribbon, used in the opening ceremony by the then Mayor of Richmond and I. (Subsequently used in Morrisons)
  4. Invitation to ‘Open 10′ event on Saturday November 22nd, celebrating 10 years of partnership between church and community.

CLICK for full size

Turning these objects over in my hand, I sometimes wonder that it has all happened. I look at the 100s of people who come through the building every week, and I am grateful for all that has been. I think of all the exhibitions, gatherings, celebrations and conversations which have taken place in the new space.  There’s an old verse in Psalm 127 which says ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build it’.  If, on the other hand, he does build it…

If you are in or around Teddington on November 22nd, why not drop in and continue the story?








An interactive sermon on ageing

On Sunday evenings in our church I have been working through a series entitled ‘how is this the word of God’ .The series has included the poetic books, the Gospels, prophecy, Pauline letters and this week was the turn of the wisdom literature. I said that it could be approached using one of three models:

The map – not showing every detail, but indicating the lie of the land. The wisdom literature gives us an idea of where the contours fall in the landscape of human behaviour, without showing every last detail.

The blueprint – showing what goes on ‘under the bonnet’ Whilst the wisdom literature does make many witty observations about the nature of human behaviour in domestic and civic life – it also tells us something about the darker thoughts and motives which lurk beneath the surface.

The sketched portrait – look at an unfinished sketch by a master like Da Vinci or Rembrandt, and it will show you where the lines should fall in the finished masterpiece. The wisdom literature sketches out how an ideal husband, or wife, or king or master ought to behave.

Having set out these guidelines, we then proceeded to tackle Ecclesiastes 12 – looking at the lie of the land, the more hidden concerns, and the way things ought to be. The results are below, exactly as given ‘live’.

Overall people were pleased to find the Bible talking with such candour about the unsavoury physical effects of ageing, and reassured to find that in the midst of such brutal honesty was real hope. Have you looked at this, the Bible’s most honest depiction of ageing? What do you see?


…or the glow of collaborative creativity?

Poets are generally thought of as those who work alone. They pace the floor whilst others sleep, seeking inspiration from the lonely shadows the moonlight casts across the floor.  They lean into the wind walking across a windswept heath or stare moodily out at a troubled sea. They work alone.

The thing is, a poet is somebody who ‘makes’ things.  The Greek verb from which the name is taken is ‘poeio’ – to make. To create poetry is to take the found materials at hand, hammer them out on the anvil of experience and watch the sparks fly as something new is fashioned. As such, there is every reason to suppose that poetry fashioned collaboratively may lead to louder banging, more sparks and a finished product worth the effort.

I teach, occasionally – both as a Pastor and a tutor. This week I have been helping to run a children’s holiday club. Alongside me has been a primary school teacher – a model of professionalism, warmth and imagination. When I saw an invitation on Twitter to contribute to a collaboratively crafted poem on teaching, I could not resist. I had, after all, been inspired.



The finished product, edited by Nina Jackson, is below. For further examples of collaborative creativity, you can click for a map, a biography, a sermon ,a Christmas tale and a book on children and bereavement.



Wordless elegance

Words are what I do. As a preacher, as a writer and as an occasional broadcaster, they are my currency. Once in a while, though, they seem to dry up.  There are times when the attempt to articulate ends up obfuscating.  There are occasions when a quest for clarity results in clumsiness.  As a peddlar of words I take my hat off today to cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon, of the Halifax Chronicle Herald for his cartoon the day after the Ottawa shooting.

I need say no more:

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