Lighting the fuse of advent

Light in darkness

For many years, I have collected nativity sets. I have them from many cultures, in many styles and of many eras. Some are minimalist, like Oliver Fabel’s offering. Some are visually stunning:

Zulu nativity

Zulu nativity

Others are quite simply bizarre, such as this one featuring three wise bishops and a triangular chicken:



This year, I am almost tempted to switch my attentions to advent calendars. If you had the budget to stretch to it, you can find them with everything from pictures and sweets to beauty products and bespoke gins hidden behind those 24 little doors. A positive view would be to say that it is all about anticipation, though a cynical one might say it was all about marketing.

I am seriously tempted to take the sayings of my favourite advent theologian, Alfred Delp, and hide them behind 24 doors. Take a look below, and see what you think. These words were written by a young priest in Nazi Germany, imprisoned for knowing too much. He wrote them with his hands in irons, and had them smuggled out of the prison in his washing. This kind of defiant hope is what advent should be all about, surely? I have placed five quotes below, but I am sure I could find 24…


  1. To wait in faith for the fruitfulness of the silent earth and for the abundance of the coming harvest, means to understand the world- even this world- in Advent.
  2. Advent is one of the primeval tides of the human soul, in which we become conscious of reaching out to grasp eternal things.
  3. The promises of God stand above us, more valid than the stars and more effective than the sun.
  4. Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, what Advent must be, if we are to live.
  5. This is the deeper sense of Advent: that we scrutinize this centre, little by little, and set up lights of recognition in our lives, and, from the centre, master life’s gloominess. 


Better than an autograph

A precious manuscript

When I launched Littlest Star ‘officially’ on November 4th, I put together a little ‘roadshow kit’. It included a jar of stars, a star-shaped dish, an apple, a knife with which to cut it and a number of printed documents.

Into the kit went the first A4 typed version of the story, the first A6 homespun version (complete with clip-art), the 2011 version brought together by a wave of creative generosity…and of course the finished book. There was, however, one document missing. I rarely write directly onto computer – so somewhere there must have been a scrappy bit of paper where I scribbled the story down. It is gone now.

Imagine my delight, then, when I encountered the document below. Look carefully and you will see that a child who has enjoyed the story has begun to write it out. This precious document means more, I think, than any review. That the story is being enjoyed, and that it is encouraging someone so young to put pen to paper, is enough.

My roadshow kit is complete.


Beware of the goat

A Scandi-warning on stereotypes

Before you watch the video below, you need to bear one thing in mind – it was made by Norwegians. In fact, it was made by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund. They know how to laugh at themselves.

This is what French playwrights of old would have called ‘rire dans l’ame’ (laughter in the soul) though. As we laugh, we are aware that we may actually be guilty of the very things which seem ridiculous in others.

This little film definitely deserves a place amongst the Christmas videos of 2016, don’t you think?


“Please stop here”

A review of ‘Hidden Christmas’ by Timothy Keller

It has already happened – just over half way through November and I have spotted my first fully decorated house – tinsel swags at the window and fairy lights winking in the late Autumn dusk. Before long, I shall doubtless see one or two signs hopefully hammered into lawns with the message ‘Santa: please stop here’. I’m not a big fan, as it seems to emphasise the getting, far more than the giving, at Christmas.

That said, I feel like erecting just such a sign over this book by Timothy Keller. It would say ‘pastor/preacher/chorister [delete as applicable] : please stop here’. To anybody ‘professionally’ involved with delivering the message of Christmas, I would heartily recommend this book. Its eight chapters will take the reader back to the very heart of Christmas and make him or her think. The pages of this slender volume will remind the one delivering that Christmas message that they need to hear it as well as speak it.

There is something reassuringly straightforward about Tim Keller’s approach – writing the kind of things which you would expect an experienced pastor to write. That said, he has a gift for writing them in a manner so arresting that it stimulates the imagination. Who, for instance, has ever seen Jesus described as a ‘billiard ball’ before? You’ll have to read the book to find out why. Consider this phrase too:

‘The manger at Christmas means that, if you live like Jesus, there won’t be room for you in a lot of inns’.

To anyone who has maybe grown a little weary of delivering the Christmas message, I would say: please stop here.


CLICK for details of the book

Shall the post-truth set you free?

Evolution or extinction?

If Christians believe that ‘the truth shall set you free’, then what about post-truth, I wonder? At first this young upstart phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary sounds like something Christians have been lamenting for the past few decades – namely the rejection of those propositional truths which they hold dear. However, the definition is rather more nuanced than that, referring instead to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief‘. It seems to me like I have spent a lot of my working life saying to people from the pulpit and elsewhere that our obligation to God’s truth stops not with accepting it but engaging with it. The extent to which emotional and personal belief are affected is a measure of success, rather than failure, in terms of truth.

That said, the core historical truths on which Christian faith is based cannot be replaced with an unsubstantiated ‘inclination’ to believe. There are truths, from which truth is deduced and by which truth is lived out, so to speak. A new dictionary definition which sounds like a threat may actually prove to be an ally, if it allows us to articulate why truth matters and what we do with it.

Two days ago, I came across the work of Stephen Wildish on ‘the importance of colour’, where he shows how identical shapes take on different meanings according to colour. Click here to see what I mean and note the example below.

How do you see this new definition – threat or opportunity?

Accidental theology

And not a filter in sight

A gentle daytime TV watercolour programme is not the place to which you would naturally turn for theology. However, for many years I have been struck by what the programme’s ‘resident expert’ had to say about the light before a storm. She explained that the reason colours look more intense just before a storm breaks is that millions of tiny droplets of water are suspended in the air – each acting like the bead on an old-fashioned beaded screen. The overall effect is to intensify light, colour and drama.

Many of us know what that feels like – an uncomfortable clarity about the way things will be just before the storm breaks. In that moment we see both the challenge we face and the presence of God with searing clarity.

Just yesterday I spotted the intensity of the light a few moments before the dark rain clouds unleashed their contents over the town where I live. To coin a phrase, there is #nofilter here. All I have done is to crop them slightly. The rest of the work is done by those millions of suspended droplets. Given the results, I am grateful to them.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Washington DC is not the world

Twenty-five square meters

Just when you might be forgiven for believing that everything of any consequence is happening in Washington DC comes a reminder from a Norwegian branch of a Swedish store that it is not so.  Families living in the scraps of a Syrian home like the one portrayed below are in the same state of pathetic anguish today that they were yesterday. Whilst their long term future will one day feel the seismic shock from the American election, today it is ‘business as usual’ and that business is survival.

Hats off to the Norwegian Red Cross and Ikea for restoring a little perspective. See below:


In the blink of an eye

A star is born?

I have commented many times on here about Christmas advertising campaigns. For the most part I find them to be clever, insightful and thought-provoking.  The launch of the Christmas ad campaign from all the major retailers is like a 21-gun salute to a commercial Christmas, filling the air with the heady cordite of spending. The campaigns often take the best part of a year to finesse, and budgets well in excess of £1 million are considered money well spent because of the revenue they generate.

Given all of this, I love the offering below, from A-level student Nick Jablonka. Submitted as part of a coursework piece on the power of John Lewis advertising, it was created within a two-week window on home software:

It is a credit to Nick’s skills that the advert was mistaken by many for the real thing. Instead, it is a home-made homage, which has garnered him an appreciative audience way beyond the classroom. Perhaps it is skill, rather than money, which speaks…



Curl up and get out

A review of ‘Winter’ edited by Melissa Harrison

Every good book is a door to somewhere else, don’t you think? To open its covers is to open onto a landscape which you have not yet crossed and to feel yourself beckoned in. It might be an intellectual landscape – littered with strange formations of thought-rocks you have never encountered. It might be an emotional landscape – bathed in the colour of an unfamiliar sky. It might even be a spiritual one, animated by the sound of an unheard yet strangely familiar melody.

Open the covers of this book, and you might feel your eyes smarting from the bitter cold of a sharp and spectacular winter’s day. Screw them up against the icy blast and you might catch sight of a beautiful mountain hare – ears pricked up and eyes looking back at you. This book will take you from mountain heights to urban jungle, and from the back of a cow shed to the slippery deck of an 18th Century sailing ship.

Let the rich vocabulary play with your senses as you consider ‘the static scroll of winter’s radio’ or the role of the ‘cloud-gatherer’.  As with all the other three volumes in the is series, Melissa Harrison has gone out of her way to wedge the door of this book as wide open as she can, admitting poets, naturalists, young writers of whom you have never heard and old writers whom you had forgotten.

If you want a book to help reduce your heating bills this Winter, this could be it. The cosy effect of curling up with it will work wonders.

In all honesty, I have only one criticism to level at this series. It has taught me to appreciate the world in which I live and the seasonal colours it sports more than I would ever have thought possible. Regrettably, though – I am left with a problem. Could we not have another season so that there could be another book?


CLICK for details of the book from Elliott and Thompson

1795 days

In praise of teamwork

I have never quite got my head around the concept of ‘light years’ – although I think it is a way of measuring enormous distances in such a way as to seem accessible. Thus an object which is 100 light years away is the distance which it would take light 100 years to travel. Given that light travels ‘at the speed of light’ that would be a very long way. The other day I met a (relatively) new dad who was still measuring the age of his infant son in days. At a point where most people would have switched from weeks to months, he was still counting in days. Somehow, it registered just how precious every day was in the presence of this little person.

Today, it is 1795 days since Littlest Star was written – at first scribbled on a bit of A4 paper, then typed up for me to read from, then made into a little booklet. You can find the details here. After that came the Slovak translation, the fuzzy felt depiction, the German translation, the radio appearances – and eventually the introduction to Lion Children’s. Today, the book goes on sale.

I have written extensively elsewhere about the story of the story. Today it is time simply to say ‘thank you’. I am grateful to every gifted hand and every generous spirit and every fine mind which has helped this story on the way. May it find its way to many a child’s heart this Christmas. Like the new dad -if I am counting in days, it is a way to remember how precious they are, and to marvel at how this little one has grown.