One of the great things about living in South East London, is having a myriad of different grocery shops to chose from, all within walking distance.
On route to my most regular choice of shop, I have the pleasure of walking through a small public garden – a lovely hidden gem, nestled in the middle of concrete pavements and busy traffic. I also walk through a couple of quiet, residential roads, with some pretty front gardens, which seem to be particularly abundant with colour this year.
One of them, in particular, always catches my eye! Standing proudly at the entrance to the property, is this wheelbarrow:
a barrow-full of surprises
Over the past few weeks I’ve watched the blooms inside this quirky container bud and flourish into an eye-catching display. Who knew a battered old wheelbarrow could become a thing of beauty? God’s glory can show up in some surprising places!
It inspired me, to scribble down these words in my notebook this morning:
Your new life within me,
Like blooms in a barrow,
Beauty for ashes,
And joy for my sorrow.
The bible, from beginning to end, is a story of redemption – God delights in choosing the broken, the worthless, the foolish things of this world, in order to display His glory.
2 Corinthians 4:7 puts it this way:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
If you look closely at the wheelbarrow, you’d notice signs of its previous existence – the deeply ingrained scuffs and scratches, the splatters of cement or paint. It’s not perfect, but that doesn’t make it any less lovely. What once was filled with rubbish, weighed down by its heavy load, is now brimming over with joyful beauty and vibrant colour. What a picture of God’s gracious handiwork in our lives!
THE GREAT EXCHANGE
Our wonderful God is the great exchanger:
Beauty for ashes
the oil of joy for mourning
a garment of praise instead of a spirit of heaviness
a robe of righteousness instead of filthy rags
glory instead of shame
perfect love instead of fear
The list just goes on and on. If you’re feeling worthless today, broken or weighed down with sin, then I have good news for you – you’re just the sort of person Jesus came to rescue! He doesn’t wait for you to ‘fix up’ before He adopts you into His family. The only thing you really need to be, is empty. Empty and willing to let a wise and loving Father transform your life into a testimony of redemption, all for His glory! Just like blooms in a barrow.
The old repro book-case in our lounge was incredibly useful. But, let’s be frank about this, it was a complete eye-sore! Its conker-colour veneer was a total anomaly, when compared with the contemporary soft whites and greys that we’d chosen for the rest of the room. Yep, that old book-case stuck out like a sore thumb!
It was one of those pieces I’d inherited from my dad, with the full intention of upcycling. Full of enthusiasm, I’d watched a ton of Annie Sloan videos, and even ordered a tin of Chalk Paint in a shade called ‘Old White.’ But sadly, I never seemed to find the time, or the energy required to remove the vast stock-pile of books from the shelves, set up a dust sheet out on the lawn, lug the great unit outside, and devote a day to painting.
And so the Annie Sloan chalk paint found its way into the dark depths of our under-stairs cupboard, where it lay forgotten for well over a year. The bookcase was doomed to be unceremoniously ‘dumped’ at the next available opportunity.
Imagine my delight, when my husband, eager for a ‘lock-down project’ to embark on, declared, one sunny afternoon: “I’m going to paint that bookcase for you tomorrow!”
Imagine my sheer surprise when my two teenage daughters, who would normally embrace ‘family projects’ with as much gusto as a cat being given a bath, piped up: “We’ll help!”
On the very next day, my dream-décor-team, got to work! Many hands make light work, and so, my painting services were not required. I was more than happy to sit and watch, and occasionally supply cups of tea, glasses of juice and sandwiches for these enthusiastic workers.
After several hours of painting, chit-chatting and listening to music, the sad old piece had been lavished with two coats of paint and was left drying in the spring sunshine. It was a real team effort – even our youngest daughter had a go at polishing up the brass drawer-furniture.
When the whole process was finished, the transformation was really quite startling! That tired old bookcase, destined only for the tip, was now absolutely splendid!
The transformation was so utterly satisfying to behold. We all stood back and marvelled. Surely, it wasn’t the same book-case?
Turns out, all it had needed was a little TLC! Hey, don’t we all?
Well, you know, that old book-case got me to thinking…
Firstly, I’m so grateful that we have a God, who chose an old wreck like me, took off my filthy rags and clothed me with robes of righteousness! He redeemed my life from the pit, and crowned me with His love and compassion. I’m so grateful.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Witnessing my family working together as a team like that, was extremely heart-warming. I’m being honest here, the teenage years can be tough – for kids and parents alike! We’ve had some difficult days these past few years. Some hurtful words have been spoken. Some gut-wrenching tears have been cried. Wrong choices have hurt us all. The busy, fast pace of our lives has often caused a disconnect.
But I’m so confident, that in the midst of this Corona Virus crisis, our Redeeming God is wanting to bring about some amazing works of restoration and transformation within families! We have a God who’s in the business of doing more than we can ask or even imagine, don’t we? (Ephesians 3:20).
Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost. He loves to restore. He loves to renew. He loves to redeem. It’s what He came to do!
I believe Jesus is just waiting to be invited in – into our homes, into our lives, into our families. He wants to transform every room of the house! Every sad, flagging marriage, every broken down, ready-for-the-tip relationship, our God is able to refresh, to renew and to restore! Confess your need today, ask for forgiveness if necessary, ask for help – and be expectant – God is full of lovingkindness and abundant grace. In this season, I truly, truly believe, He is pouring out His grace over families, to renew and to restore!
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert
On that day, when evening had come, He said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd they took Him with them in the boat, just as He was. And other boats were with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing? And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still! And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”
Squalls & Storms!
This morning, as we find ourselves in the grip of a growing global health crisis,’ I believe this is such a word in season.
We know the story well. The disciples and Jesus are sailing across the Sea of Galilee, when all of a sudden, a great wind-storm arises. In the book of Matthew, the word ‘squall’ is used, which means a sudden violent wind, or localised storm, especially one bringing rain, snow or sleet.
Isn’t it strange how suddenly trouble can arise? One minute it’s Happy New Year, and the next…we’re lurching from one crisis to the next. Wildfires. Climate change. Plagues of locusts. Deadly viruses. Storms, both literal and metaphoric, are by nature, sudden, violent and unpredictable. And they seem to be increasing in these days.
Don’t You Care?
The waves were ‘breaking into the boat’, and the boat was ‘already’ filling with water. This was not just a risky situ, this was imminent, life-threatening danger. And where was Jesus? Asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat!
The disciples on the other hand, were quite understandably, panicking!
They wake Jesus up, seemingly bemused, as to why He isn’t doing anything!
“Don’t you care that we are perishing?” they say.
Now, perhaps Jesus was in such a deep sleep that He genuinely didn’t realise there was a full-scale hullabaloo going on! But the interesting point is, when He wakes up, He doesn’t immediately start trying to bail out the water and join in the panic. Neither does He apologise for being asleep. At no point does Jesus become subject to the storm.
In the Grip of Fear
Have you noticed how quickly fear can spread? Believe me, it can escalate much faster than any virus! When you witness people fighting and screaming over toilet-roll in the supermarket, you begin to understand just how noxious fear can be.
But have you ever noticed there are two types of fear in this passage?
First we witness the fear of the storm. Highly understandable in many ways. The boat was taking a pounding, it was filling up with water. If things didn’t change very quickly, it was only going one way….Down into the depths.
Jesus rebukes the wind and speaks to the sea: “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceases and there is a great calm.
There are no words to describe how awesome this must have been.
And then Jesus addresses the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
It’s incredible, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t immediately comfort these traumatised disciples, He challenges them! “Why are you so afraid?” Haven’t you seen enough of My power, of My great love and compassion – are you still not yet convinced?
A Different Kind of Fear
And then the scripture tells us that they are filled with GREAT FEAR, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that even the winds and waves obey Him?”
Suddenly they are gripped with the right kind of fear. It’s called the Fear of the Lord. It’s a reverential, awestruck submission. It’s the kind of fear that realises that God is infinitely Higher, and greater and Holier than I could ever imagine -that everything He says and everything He does is always just and right and true. It’s the kind of fear that caused the apostle John to fall down like a dead man at the sight of the Resurrected Jesus, and Isaiah to cry out, “Woe is me, for I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”
Right in this jaw-dropping moment, when all of a sudden the raging sea with it’s high and lofty billows becomes as calm as a millpond, the disciples suddenly SEE. They realise who the real King is.
They see that all along they have been in the boat with someone so powerful, so glorious, so incomprehensible, that they are absolutely undone. All of a sudden, they are filled with the right kind of fear. Internally, they fall to their knees, as they now perceive that the One who stands before them is utterly powerful, absolutely in control, and ultimately worthy of all worship, honour, and glory. Suddenly they are no longer afraid of the storm, because they’ve just locked eyes with the storm-stopper!
So in the midst of this very real crisis, let’s ask God to help us not to give in to fear and panic. Despite the rising water level, despite the numbers of confirmed cases increasing by the hour, despite the chaos we can see all around us & the media overplaying, (or politicians underplaying) things, and despite the ensuing panic and disruption that may well come, let’s press on, rebuking the storm and trusting in the storm-stopper!
In these stormy times, in the face of this sudden squall, I pray we will be governed by the right kind of fear, the fear of the Lord, which so wondrously displaces any other.
I don’t know about you, but I always find New Year a bit strange. Whether it’s a fireworks display, a party, or even just a quiet night in, watching Jules Holland on TV, inevitably, the big moment comes…
The countdown… For those of us in the UK, the arrival of the New Year is usually marked by the familiar sound of Big Ben chiming – and with each resounding BONG, we find ourselves joining in the chant – “ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one….”
And then, with great gusto, we’re off! Pulling those strings on our party-poppers and shouting HAPPY NEW YEAR!
And to the sound of Auld Lang Syne, off we go, kissing and hugging everyone – & I mean EVERYONE – (even people we hardly know) and wishing them a Happy New Year.
And there’s that weird sense of anticipation… In one moment, in a single second, we’ve collectively crossed over a threshold. There are so many analogies, aren’t there? A blank page. A new chapter. A brand new book! A fresh start. A clean slate. Ring out the old, ring in the new.
Resolutions are made.
This is the year I’m going to: ______________________ (you fill in the blank!)
And there’s that feeling, isn’t there? Things really ought to be different. Yesterday is gone. A line is firmly drawn under last year. Now, things can only get better.
And then quick as a flash, magazines start to appear, with their New Year slogans:
New Year, New Start!
Ten steps to a brand new you!
New Year Detox – A Diet you can finally stick to!
It sounds good, doesn’t it? Inspiring. But…deep down inside, there’s this underlying sense of reality. Nothing significant has actually changed. You look in the mirror. Same face. Same need to face the day. The washing up needs doing. That old pile of ironing…yep. It’s still there.
Special as it is, Jan 1st is just another day. You don’t wake up any different. In reality, you’re just the same old you.
And by about January 17th, usually once you’ve broken your resolve and stuffed your face with the remnants of a box of chocolates you forgot you had, it can all feel like a bit of a let-down. It’s just the same old, same old.
BUT, dear Reader Friends, there is good news!
It beautifully dawned on me yesterday whilst I was driving. I had my worship playlist on in the car. And all of a sudden as I was pondering what the New Year might have in store…I heard these words:
Your mercies are new, over and over,
Your mercies are new, over and over,
As surely as the morning comes, You’re faithful!
I’ll sing of Your love, over and over,
I’ll sing of Your love, over and over,
I’ll sing with every setting sun,
(Over and Over, by Chris McClarney, from the 2018 album, ‘Breakthrough’)
This is what the word of God says:
The steadfast love of the Lord NEVER CEASES,
His mercies NEVER COME TO AN END
They are NEW EVERY MORNING,
Great is Thy Faithfulness!
With the dawning of every day, regardless of whether it’s 1st January, or 25th April, or 7th September…each and every day that I live and breathe, I’m given a fresh start. A gift! A brand new day, with new mercies to be found. Not yesterday’s leftovers. Nope. God’s mercies are new every morning. Oh sweet truth!
I might start the new year with good intentions…only to fail. But my God, He never fails. He never grows weary. His steadfast love never ceases. His mercies don’t run out of puff. They are always fresh, always new. Never failing, never ceasing. And with every setting sun, if I’m intentional enough to count my blessings, I’ll be able to say, “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
“I’m sure it’s in here somewhere,” Nan muttered, reaching for her spectacles, before attempting to prise open a battered old biscuit-tin lid. Katie didn’t know whether to step in or let Nan soldier on. Although Nan’s arthritic hands gave away the fact that she had recently reached the ripe old age of eighty-three, her mind was still razor sharp. Katie always loved listening to Nan’s stories, even though she’d heard them over and over again.
The biscuit tin, which had once been full of Christmas Shortbread, was covered in tartan and festive flowers. Katie couldn’t quite place the era. She eyed Nan fondly, taking in her features; her white hair, cut into a short, modern style, and the slenderness of her frame. The biscuit tin looked dated, but somehow, Nan never did. Nan had always been such a stylish lady. Katie couldn’t think of many women in their eighties, who still wore jeans, apart from that Mary Berry, who did the cooking on TV. Today, Nan was elegantly dressed in a beige cashmere-look jumper. Tied at her neck was a gold, sequinned scarf, which brought warmth to her face and made her blue eyes, although furrowed with lines, appear vivid and bright.
Inside the old biscuit tin was an assortment of letters, cards, and photographs, along with many other odds and ends.
“I used to call this my Memory Box” chuckled Nan. “I put all my keepsakes inside it – you know theatre tickets, letters, that sort of thing. Haven’t opened it in years! It’s probably a load of old tat!”
As Nan rummaged through the old tin, Katie fell into a poignant silence. This assortment of forgotten items, each and every photograph or keepsake, told a story; the story of Nan’s life, which in turn, was a part of Katie’s own.
At twenty-two, the majority of Katie’s life still lay ahead of her. But lately, she’d been feeling a bit stuck in a rut. After leaving college, Katie had ended up taking a job in the City, as an office Junior, at the Insurance firm her Uncle David worked for. Just over three years later, she was still there, filing, typing, taking minutes at board meetings, making coffee and ordering stationery supplies. There was nothing particularly wrong about it. The salary wasn’t bad. Katie had a wardrobe full of nice clothes. She was saving up towards a deposit for a flat, and she had her own car. She caught the 8:08 train to Paddington every morning, and arrived home again at 6:32. It was familiar. It was safe. But sometimes, Katie wondered if she ought to have followed her heart, and done that Teaching Degree she’d looked into.
“Here it is!” said Nan, finally laying hands on what she had been searching for: An old black and white photograph of herself as a young woman.
“See? I told you! You look just like me!”
Katie gasped. She could definitely see the strong family likeness. It was astonishing how much nan resembled her father across the eyes. Nan’s shoulder length hair, much darker in those days, was set in elegant, pin-tucks and waves. She wore a dress with a perky little collar, cinched in dramatically at the waist, and high-heeled shoes, showing off her shapely legs.
“I was about twenty here”, Nan recalled, with a faraway look in her eyes.
“Nan, you looked like a film star!” Katie said, drinking in the glamour and femininity of the era.
“Oh, go on!” laughed Nan. “But I was rather slim, wasn’t I?”
“A million dollars! You must have had all the boys chasing you!”
Nan’s face lit up. “I had a few admirers. But I only ever had eyes for your Grandpa George. Oh how I miss that man!” She sighed. “This was a few months before we started courting.”
Courting. Katie couldn’t help smiling at Nan’s old-fashioned expression.
“How did you meet again?” Katie asked.
“Oh, it was a chance encounter” Nan recalled. “I was working at the dress-makers, you know, on the sewing machines. One day I was sent to the post office on an errand. Your Grandpa was standing behind me in the queue. He was the most handsome man I’d ever clapped eyes on! We started talking and he asked me where I worked. Well, that evening, he was waiting for me at the gates! Turns out he’d been waiting there for over an hour! And from that day onwards, he waited for me every single day – come rain or shine.
Katie sighed. How romantic!
“How old were you when you got married, nan?”
“I’d just turned twenty-one. I was a baby, really. But we were head over heels.”
Katie thought about her own life. There were no signs of anything remotely close to marriage on the horizon for her. In fact, Katie seemed to possess quite a talent for falling for the wrong type of guy. Katie and her best friend Sarah had once spent a hilarious evening coming up with nick-names for a few of Katie’s biggest dating disasters. There was vain Wayne followed by Lying Lee. Oh, and not forgetting, two-timing Tim, of course!
It would be so nice, for once in her life, to find the type of guy that would wait at the gates – do something truly romantic- for her. Katie sighed. She wondered if men like Grandpa George even existed anymore?
Joe Hart’s face flashed momentarily into Katie’s mind. But she batted the thought away as quickly as it had immerged. Don’t be so ridiculous.
Nan spoke very calmly, as she poured another cup of tea, as though she could see into the depths of Katie’s soul. “So, any young men on the scene for you, dear?
Katie shook her head, a little too quickly, before biting into one of nan’s famous home-made rock cakes. Chance would be a fine thing. “I’m afraid not, Nan. I still haven’t met the right one.”
Nan eyed Katie over the rim of her spectacles as though she were examining a candidate at an interview. “Hmm, you can’t fool an old fool like me! There’s someone on your mind, I can tell.”
Katie sighed, admitting defeat. “Well, there was this guy…Oh it’s ridiculous. I met him on my way home from work a few weeks ago…but, let’s just say it was definitely a chance encounter!”
Nan seemed unperturbed. “Well, what’s his name?”
“His name was Joe. Joseph Hart. It was just before Christmas. My train was cancelled. I had high heels on and my feet were killing me – so I found this cute little coffee shop. I sat down and started reading my book. I was miles away, when suddenly, this guy started talking to me. Turns out he was reading the same book! We got chatting, and he ended up buying me another Caramel Latte.”
“Oh?” said Nan, clinking her china teacup onto its matching saucer. “And what happened after that?”
Katie wriggled in her seat. “Well, it was all going great, until I found out he lives in Devon. He’d come to London for the weekend – to visit his cousin. We chatted for a while, but then he had to dash off for his train. So we quickly tore a napkin in half and scribbled down our phone numbers. And that was that. But, he’s probably lost my number, and well, Devon’s not exactly round the corner, is it?
“Not exactly,” repeated Nan. “But I’m pretty sure they have a university there. Maybe you should look into doing that Teaching Degree.”
Katie smiled. Nan was so wonderfully black and white. In her mind, it was simple: Boy meets girl. Boy waits for girl at the gates. Boy and girl fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. But unfortunately, it was no longer the 1950’s. Life just wasn’t that simple anymore.
“You never know, Nan. Katie sighed. “He might just surprise me!”
“Well, of course he will!” said Nan with a twinkle in her eye. “He’d be a fool to let you slip away!”
The surprise came a few days later. Katie was clearing out her wardrobe when her phone rang.
“Hello?” she said, not recognising the number.
There was a slight pause.
“Are you doing anything this evening?”
It took Katie a few moments to remember where she’d heard that West Country lilt. It was Joe Hart!
With her heart pounding like the clappers, Katie managed to reply in a composed manner. “Err, nope. No plans whatsoever. Why?”
“Cos, I just wondered if you fancied another one of those Caramel Lattes? It’s Joe. Joseph Hart. The guy from the coffee shop? Do you remember me?
Katie caught her breath. Are you kidding? “Hi Joe. Yes, of course, I remember you.”
“Well. I thought I’d pay my cousin another visit, you know, hit the January sales and all that.” His voice lowered slightly. “Actually, I hate shopping. But it seemed like a good excuse to see you again.”
Wait, was he in London now? Had he really come all this way, for her?
Katie’s heart did a flip. “Where abouts are you exactly?”
“I’m at that coffee shop. I’m just getting to that last chapter of the book. Have you read it yet?”
“Yep. I finished it last night. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a good ending.”
“Ok. Well, I’ll be waiting here for you.”
“I’m on my way!” Katie grinned.
Practically flying down the stairs and grabbing for her coat and scarf, Katie’s mum stopped her by the front door. “Ooh you look nice, love. Where are you flying off to?”
Katie smiled. “I’m going to meet a friend for coffee.”
Mum smiled. “Well, have fun! Oh, and before you go, I was just about to throw this out, but it’s such a nice tin, I wondered if you could make use of it?”
Katie couldn’t help but smile when she caught sight of the empty biscuit tin that her mum was holding in her hands. Christmas Shortbread.
“As a matter of fact, that might just come in handy.”
Katie rummaged around in her coat pockets for her gloves and quite by chance, pulled out the napkin that had Joe Hart’s telephone number scrawled across it.
Instinctively, before leaving the house, Katie opened the biscuit tin lid, and placed the napkin inside.
Alison Jennings put the car into reverse, and began inching her way out of the tight parking space her seven-seater had occupied since around 10:30 that morning. It was at times like this that Ali wished she had a smaller car!
It was just gone quarter to three, almost time to collect her four and five year old from school. The time had whizzed, and Ali hadn’t bought nearly as many Christmas presents as she’d hoped. She still hadn’t got anything for her parents, two of her brothers-in-law, her teenage son, or her husband, Nick! She’d definitely have to go out again next week.
Ali drove down a ramp and followed the exit signs round to the right, where she was immediately met with a queue of traffic, waiting to exit the multi-story. Car-horns were hooting all over the place. Silly people…What’s the point of hooting? There was nothing else to do but wait. Ironically, a carol sprang to mind that her dad used to sing. What were the words again? Peace on earth…and angels singing… or something like that. What a joke!
Ali exhaled sharply as she checked the time on the dash. 2:54pm. She had to be at school by quarter past three. Inwardly, she scolded herself for not having left sooner. The shops had been packed and school-run time was notoriously busy. Ali contemplated texting someone. Perhaps one of the other school-mums wouldn’t mind grabbing her kids and waiting with them until she arrived? She edged forward, noticing the speed at which the cars were moving. She decided not to bother anyone else. With any luck she might just make it, but it would be a close call.
Just over half an hour later, Ali had collected the kids, and she was now bundling them back in the car. Ali seemed to spend most of her life, standing in the rain, strapping kids in and out of car seats lately. Boy did she need a cup of tea! A little way down the road, Ali’s heart sank as she remembered they were almost out of milk. She wondered if she ought to send Danny, her teenage son down the road to get some? But by now, it was pelting down with rain. And he’d probably moan and protest after a long day at secondary school. Then Ali thought about dinner. She wasn’t even sure if there was anything much to eat in the fridge. Plus, it was the last day of term tomorrow, and she really ought to buy the teachers a box of biscuits or something. There was no way round it. She’d have to make a stop on the way home.
Saturday 21st December
The alarm went off at 6:15 am. Ali trudged downstairs, bleary-eyed in the darkness. In robot-fashion, she turned on the heating, fed the cat, and made two cups of tea, wondering if Nick had even remembered. They needed to be at the butcher’s by seven o’clock that morning to collect the Turkey. Carrying two mugs of tea up the stairs, she peered into the kids’ bedroom. Her two little sleepy-heads were absolutely out for the count. Blotto! They would definitely not appreciate being dragged out of bed, in the dark, on the first morning of their Christmas holidays. Ali had been awake since 5:15 going over and over the ever growing list of vegetables, condiments, drinks, desserts and other groceries she still needed to buy. She made a mental note not to forget the cranberry sauce. Or the brandy cream. And the extra roll of Selo-tape. Oh and she’d better buy some cheese. Uncle Pete loved his cheese. Some of Nick’s family were coming over for dinner tomorrow evening. What on earth could she cook? A Beef Casserole might be best. If she prepped it early enough, she could set the oven timer to come on while they were that at that blasted Christingle Service that her neighbour was dragging her along to. Ali wondered if she could wriggle out of it somehow. But the kids were desperate to go. And surprisingly, Nick was keen too. He used to go to Carols every year as a child. Ali hadn’t set foot in a church for years. Her head was spinning. She needed to write a list. What time did the supermarket open, she wondered? Would the vegetables even keep until Christmas Day? She hoped they hadn’t sold out of Red Cabbages.
Sunday 22nd December
With the beef casserole prepped and in the oven, Ali turned her attention to wrapping presents! The kids were happy watching ‘The Grinch’ in the front room with Nick, and so Ali had the dining room table all to herself.
Ali had to admit, she’d been a bit of a ‘Grinch’ herself, that morning. It all started, when Danny, her teenage son, had started moaning about the fact that he’d run out of clean socks and pants! The cheek of it! He’d been lying in bed all morning, while she’d been up with the lark, cleaning the bathroom and trying to make the house look presentable. Then, when Henry, her four year old, had accidentally tipped over his glass of juice at lunch-time, Ali had felt like she was going to spontaneously combust!
Ali put on a Christmas album, “Christmas With The Crooners,” opened a packet of mince pies and poured herself a glass of sherry. Perhaps that would get her back in the festive spirit! Tomorrow, she’d take an early train into London to finish her Christmas shopping, and with any luck, she might even get to sit down and watch a movie on Christmas Eve – providing she’d made the trifle and wrapped up the last of the Christmas presents.
Ali smiled wryly as an Andy Williams Classic began playing…”It’s the most wonderful time of the year…!”
Wonderful? Christmas was just one big stress!
Ali inhaled. She wondered how long she could carry on living life at this pace. She glanced at the clock. She only had an hour or so before they needed to leave for the Christingle. She hadn’t even chosen the kids’ outfits yet. Why, oh why had she agreed to go?
The Church was packed with jolly looking visitors, of all ages. Ali was somewhat taken aback. She’d immediately envisaged a cold, echoing, austere looking building, filled with elderly folk. But the church hall was brightly painted, cosily decked out with garlands of Ivy and Mistletoe. Sparkling fairy lights were wrapped around the pillars, and a magnificent Christmas Tree, covered in red baubles and ribbons made a Festive focal point at the front of the hall.
Ali felt a little out of place as the sound of the first Christmas Carol filled the air. The people sang with such gusto, and such happy faces, it made her feel a little self-conscious. Ali kept her eyes glued on the words printed on her song-sheet.
Hark, the Herald Angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King,
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…
It was that song again… Her dad’s favourite Christmas hymn! She studied the words, and joined in the jubilant singing:
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace,
Hail the Sun of Righteousness,
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings,
Mild, He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth,
Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.
A strange longing filled Ali’s soul. She felt tears prick at the corners of her eyes. Light. Life. Peace. Healing. Second birth. These words seemed to stir something, right within the very core of her being, even though she had no idea what any of them meant.
And then all of sudden, as oranges and candles, dried fruits and red ribbons were handed out to all the children, the Minister began to explain.
The orange represented the world.
The ribbon, God’s love wrapped around it, red because of Christ’s redeeming blood, shed on the cross of Calvary.
The dried fruits and sweets, symbols of mankind – God’s creation.
And finally, the lit candle, representing Jesus, the light of the World, bringing hope to the people living in darkness.
As Ali stood, watching her children listening intently, their faces softly aglow with candle-lit wonder, she felt her husband gently squeeze her hand. A strange feeling began to wash over her. What was it, Peace? Joy? Did Nick feel it too? She closed her eyes for a moment, and as the first chords of the final hymn began to resound, she exhaled, letting all the stress of the past few weeks, leave her for a moment. And for the first time in a very long time, she suddenly knew what – or rather who – Christmas was really all about.
Ali had such a lump in her throat as they sang the final hymn.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels,
O come let us adore Him.
Christ the Lord!
As they exited the church hall, they passed the Minister who was handing out leaflets at the door. To her amazement, Ali grabbed one. She couldn’t quite explain how she was feeling, but inwardly she knew that something had changed, and she needed to find out more.
“So, did you enjoy it?” her neighbour asked cautiously, as they walked out into the darkness. Ali thought about how desperately she’d NOT wanted to come and all that she would have missed if she hadn’t.
Spontaneously, she threw her arms around her friend. “I did! I really did. You’ve no idea how much I needed that. Thank you so much for inviting me!”
And as they drove home in the darkness, the kids strangely quiet in the back of the car, Ali glanced up at the Christmas Lights shining overhead in the high Street. She smiled as she noticed them, as if for the first time. There were stars and angels everywhere she looked! Glory to the Newborn King, she hummed quietly under her breath.
Boxing Day leftovers would simply not be complete in our house, without a goodly portion of Mum’s Red Cabbage.
This is one of those wonderful old family recipes, that has added that special touch to the Christmas table, for as long as I can remember. It pairs beautifully with Turkey and all the trimmings, particularly Chipolatas or Sausage-meat stuffing. It’s not a difficult dish to make AT ALL. But it does take a bit of time to do it right.
It’s so worth it though. I always make mine in advance, normally on Christmas Eve, whilst listening to my favourite Christmas Album, of course…. (It’s A Wonderful Christmas, by Michael W Smith, in case you were wondering).
It can then be cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container overnight. And then on Christmas day, it can be whipped out, and really easily reheated on the hob.
1. Start by finely slicing 1 red cabbage.
2. Melt 2oz butter in a large lidded pan. Add in the sliced cabbage, plus 1-2 finely chopped dessert apples (I used Pink Lady)
3. Saute the cabbage and apple in the butter for 25-30 mins, moving continuously, until the cabbage has softened.
Now, this may sound laborious, but it’s THE single-most important instruction. Cabbage, being a rather fibrous vegetable, takes a while to soften, and it will turn a horrible murky colour if it catches and browns.
Follow this step, and in turn you will be rewarded with a dish that is gloriously vibrant in colour. The apples will turn a gorgeous pink, infused with the colour of the cabbage, and the dish will end up glossy and sumptuous.
4. Add in 1/4 pint of beef stock, 1 generous tablespoon of Golden Syrup and 2 fl oz of Vinegar (I used Balsamic, but Red or White Wine Vinegar work well too). Stir everything well, bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 40 mins. Check and stir every 10 mins or so.
Tangy, sweet , and slightly al dente – this dish is the perfect accompaniment to all that rich Christmas Meat. It goes brilliantly well with sliced Ham!
So if you’re in the supermarket, and you spy a Red Cabbage hanging around, grab one and give this dish a try. It might become a festive favourite in your family too!
This is a really simple family meal that always goes down a treat! It’s got the tastiest sauce – the kids lick their plates!
I call it Somerset Chicken, due to its killer ingredient, which gives it a very moreish sweet flavour – Apple Cider!
Here’s the instructions:
Gently stir fry some chopped chicken, plus one small onion in some olive oil. (I used Chicken Thigh fillets, as they tend to be very flavoursome and succulent, plus some leftover Roast Chicken I needed to use up). Season generously.
2. Add some flour (approx 1 heaped tbsp) to act as a thickener for the sauce, which is made from cider and stock.
3. Add half a pint of Dry Cider and half pint of chicken stock, plus some dried Rosemary or Thyme. Stir well. Season again.
That’s the prep done – couldn’t be simpler!
Sometimes I jazz things up by adding some bacon lardons at stage 1 – this works really well as the salty bacon offsets the sweet cider beautifully – just use less seasoning, to avoid things getting too salty!
4. Cook for 1 1/2 hours in a crock pot or lidded casserole dish at 180 degrees. Check half way through to ensure sauce has not reduced too much. Add a little more water if needed.
My mum taught me how to prepare these leeks – they’re brilliant! Really tasty, and a great accompaniment to so many dishes, particularly chicken dishes, or Sausage n Mash!
Gently saute 2 chopped leeks in 1 tbsp butter. Season.
When leeks are soft and glossy, add approx 30ml boiling water, just enough to shallowly cover bottom of pan.
Add a few handfuls of Frozen Peas. If you like, add a little Rosemary or Tarragon. Bring to boil, then turn down low and simmer in a lidded frying pan for 5-6 minutes with lid partly ajar to allow excess liquid to reduce.
Serve both dishes with some creamy, mashed potato.
Super satisfying, especially with a glass of leftover cider!
I am older than you – a whole generation apart. It may seem to you like I was born in a different era, and that I don’t understand what you’re going through.
But in many ways I’ve walked in your shoes. Like you, I’ve grown from infant to child. From child to teen. From teen to young woman – filled with hope and aspirations for my future.
The world has changed for sure. But in the end, the human heart doesn’t change that much. Not really. At the end of the day, we all need the same things. Love. Significance. Purpose.
I’ve walked further along life’s road than you…and experienced some of the things that I know you dream of… Bride. Wife. Mother.
I’ve cried my way down the aisle (yes, I’ve always been a crier!) I’ve carried four utter miracles within my womb – including a set of very wriggly twins!
I’ve cried tears of bewildered joy as I’ve held each precious gift in my arms, knowing that me and your father’s lives would never be the same again and wondering how it was possible to ever love someone quite that fiercely.
I thank God for these precious, God-given experiences – my cup truly runs over! Life is full of these changing seasons. It has its mountain top moments, and also it’s valleys. But all these experiences, every single one, is a part of the beautiful, tapestry of life.
But if I could stop, for just one moment, look over my shoulder, and give you some wisdom for your journey, even though it may be different to mine…..what would I say?
There are some things that I’ve learned over the years (often the hard way) that I would love to pass on to you. And so without further ado, I’m creating a series of posts, entitled, ‘For My Daughters’…(but of course, Samuel – my precious & only son, and the rest of you, dear readers, are all invited too!)
And here’s the first thing:
You are fearfully and wonderfully made
As sisters you might be alike – yet each one of you is totally unique. Each human being has their own specific genetic code. 26 pairs of Chromosomes paired up in a completely different permutation, meaning that you are a one-of-a-kind work of art! Interestingly, every human being on the planet shares 99.9 per cent of the same DNA. It’s that 0.1 per cent difference that determines your hair and eye colour, the shape of your face, your height, your natural abilities etc. I don’t know how this kind of thing is calculated, but they say that if your DNA was somehow unravelled, it would stretch to the sun! All the way to the heavens!
Embrace who you are! Don’t try and be someone else. This world will try and sell you the lie that your value as a woman is wrapped up in the way you look. Don’t waste time comparing yourself to someone you’ve seen on Social Media, or wishing you were just that little bit thinner here, or a little bit fuller there. Don’t try to be someone else. You can’t be. Because, praise God, you’re you! You’re a miracle! You are not some random, computer-generated, pot-luck type of person. Look!
For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You,
For I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skilfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.
Psalm 139: 13-16
The words of this Psalm are completely staggering. Even though I carried each one of you within my womb, I couldn’t see much of what was going on as you were forming and growing. But God was there! He saw it all. He was involved. He formed your inward parts! He wove you together. You were skilfully wrought. His eyes were upon you even when you were still unformed.
And all your days were already ordained! God is the author of your life! He is writing your story. He’s not standing afar off! No. He’s intimately involved and acquainted with all your ways. Remember, you are precious; unique; significant; loved. Loved to the uttermost by a wonderful heavenly Father.