The Joy of Children’s Books

Feeding our imaginations and broadening horizons brings joy and wonder to all our lives and faiths. With International Book Day coming up soon Sandra Palmer invites us to consider the special place children’s books have in enriching all our lives.

b-frog_and_toad2uI brought home a book I had been given for Christmas – Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel. Anne, our parish assistant,  fell on it with glee, it was a treasure from her childhood. A happy time passed as we  laughed about the stories.

My childhood was filled with such books. That made me a lucky child despite the tensions in my home  and the poverty of our living conditions in London before we returned to Australia. Studies have repeatedly suggested that children who have access to books and love reading are more likely to achieve academically and survive the vicissitudes of dysfunctional family lives. Books gave me pleasure –  feeding my imagination with characters, pictures, plots, phrases and words.

b-rabbit-hole-uThe primary reason  I buy books for the children in my life is that I want to share  the pleasure of reading in general and the pleasure of particular books.  Sometimes that pleasure is in the laughter provoked. I still chuckle  at the thought of Paddington Bear covering the bathroom floor with shaving cream and letting the bath overflow , and also at  Pooh Bear stuck trying to leave Rabbits burrow. The children in my classes chuckled with me- it didn’t matter that the stories  were set in a far away country and, in the case of Pooh Bear,  written decades before.

Escaping into other worlds is another pleasure  – it could be the Far Away Tree , Narnia or Hogwarts, these are worlds where parents can’t trespass unless the parent is the reader and then it is a shared adventure . Not all the worlds need be imaginary, for the young child all worlds other then their own is a new one whether it is Katy Morag’s Scottish island or Alfie and Annie Rose’s London.

b-railway-chSome recent books feature in my ever growing canon of children’s books, others belong to earlier generations . The  themes of loss, redemption and reunion in Heidi  are as relevant today as they were when I was a child when it was already seventy plus years old.  A local year six teacher once told me how much his class , among whom were  many refugee children, loved the Edwardian novel The Railway Children by E. Nesbit . Some knew what it was like to have a father falsely imprisoned, or to need leave home abruptly. And most knew the pain of separation and the joy or reunion.

One joy I have in reading children’s books with children is in the rhythm of a  well – written text , in the rhymes of some and also the delicious choice of words and phrases , most in common use, some created especially. Did you know that dreams are made of zozimus?  ( Roald  Dahl)

b-gruffThe quality of the illustrations of picture books also affects my pleasure and I think subtly makes a difference to children who pore over them looking for the intricate detail , imagining stories for themselves.  Julia Donaldson owes part of her success to her wonderful illustrators – – Axel Schaffer’s depiction of the deep dark frightening wood in the Gruffalo  adds to her tale. And there are some magical , mysterious books told with few if any words such as Raymond Briggs Snowman.

For this adult there can be the great joy of reading to the child snuggled up close, attentively listening, wondering what happens next ( though this may not always be the case after the twentieth request  for a book ) and the joy of seeing children read to themselves whether it’s when they are quite small and are reciting the books by heart or when they are curled up finding peace in a nook with a book.

But I can’t finish without mentioning Ann of Green Gables. When I meet someone who also loved that feisty redhead there is an act of recognition – we are kindred spirits belonging to the same world wide club.

Sandra Palmer invites you to her home for an afternoon of discussing children’s books, especially those winning the Carnegie prize, on Saturday 11 th March 3.30 – 5.30 (Contact the Church Office for directions)

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Why Ash?

Ash Wednesday– most of us have heard the name, and many of us know the tradition of a priest “imposing” or putting ash on people’s foreheads.  Why do we do it? Fr Chris continues our series about why we do the things we do at St Chrysostom’s.

wals-2014Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. We begin this special season with a strong  physical reminder that we are entering into a serious period of penitence (Lent) when we take stock of our lives, and live a more austere life, and explore our faith more deeply.

In the Old Testament, Job repents “in dust and ashes,” and we find other examples of ashes and repentance in Esther, Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

As they “impose” or put on us the ashes, the priests remind each individual of the sombre words from Genesis 3:19: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return,” sometimes the phrase  “Repent and believe in the Gospel” is added.  It is a stark reminder that we are nothing without the grace of God. It is God who makes us and models us from the dust of the earth.

Those words from the Genesis story are said to Adam and Eve when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden because of their disobedience.  As human beings, like Adam and Eve, we are not perfect. We know of our need of God to help us to amend our lives. The ashes on our forehead remind us of this and help us to enter personally into this deep truth.

A light hearted guide to the different crosses of Ash Wednesday!

A light hearted guide to the different crosses of Ash Wednesday!

The “Ashing” is symbolic, and people choose to wear these ashes for a while, whilst others rub them off quite quickie. Either way it is a reminder that our lives are short, and that we end up as ash and dirt.  The Ash is marked in the form of a cross – and an earlier question in this series looked at the use of the sign of the cross.  We may be made of dust, but we can share in the victory of the Cross.

The ceremony traditionally takes place as we go to Mass on Ash Wednesday, but in fact ashes can be imposed anywhere. At St Chrysostom’s we often do Ashing to Go outside Church or elsewhere in the parish, and in the States the ceremony is found in a wide variety of places – even in Car Washes!

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Spending time with the ancestors at Shaugh Prior

Nestled on the southern edge of Dartmoor, not far from Plymouth, is the village of Shaugh Prior. Being a largely rural parish it is possible, for a short time at least, to soak up the rural charm and peace of the place. It’s a very important and special place to me as generations of my paternal Grandmother’s family lived and farmed there from the 1750s to the early 20th century.

st-edwards-exterior-uThe old village contains some wonderful old buildings, but the best by far is the 15th century parish church, dedicated to St Edward, King and Martyr. As with many ancient churches there are numerous special items of interest, but to me two items stand out. The first is a relic of the pre-reformation era – an ancient altar stone with five incised crosses. Now located beneath the high altar, I contemplated the history if only that stone could speak! The second item of interest to me is the font. Although the font itself is quite plain it is surmounted by the most splendid oak font cover dating from the 15th century. Considering that generations of my family were baptised and married inside this church it is a special experience to contemplate their presence in that place from so long ago.

St Edward’s is surrounded by a beautiful country churchyard. This is truly one of my “special places” – a place where I can escape the hustle and bustle of the busy world and spend time with the ancestors. Far from being a morbid practice, visiting the churchyard is a fascinating and enriching experience and offers me the chance to connect with family members buried there long ago. It might sound an exaggeration, but I can claim to be related to most of the residents of God’s Acre at Shaugh! Being a rural churchyard there is much of historic interest to see – the earliest surviving headstones date to the mid-18th century and being beautifully carved are works of art in their own right.

st-edwards-shaugh-uAs I wandered around the churchyard today, reading the names of my long deceased ancestors and pondering on their lives, I was carried away by the peace and serenity of the place. God’s work of creation was truly at hand – manifested in the beautiful primroses and snowdrops scattered about and this offered a moment, a glimpse perhaps, of ‘Heaven on earth’.

I sat for a moment near the resting place of my 4th Great Grandparents. In doing so I felt the soft breeze and heard birds singing all around. It was as if the whole moment were an unspoken prayer. The words of the poet and hymn writer, Dorothy Frances Gurney went through my mind as I sat in silence there, “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden: Than anywhere else on earth.”

Matching Gurney’s wonderful words are the stunning epitaphs recorded on many of the ancient headstones at Shaugh. I have a couple of favourites worth sharing. Their sentiment in putting all hope and trust in Christ places us equal with every generation of Christians before us. How true are the words of Psalm 90 “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night”.

The first epitaph, carved onto the headstone of my 8th Great Grandparents, dating from 1744 reads:

‘You that are living and pass by
Remember that you all must dye
Forsake your sins whilst tis to day
Relent Repent without delay
Implore Gods Grace trust in Christs merit
If Heavenly Joy you will in herit’

Another favourite reads:

‘Our children dear forbear to weep,

While in this grave we calmly sleep.

All earthly ties we’ve left behind,

In hope a glorious crown to find.

(Thank you to Graham Naylor, a former worshipper at St Chrysostom’s, now living in Plymouth, for this lovely blog post)

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Thoughts for Homelessness Week

Fr Chris offers this reflection for Homelessness week (18-25 February)

During this last week I was struck by the story of a woman who is now homeless on the streets of Manchester – some may have glimpsed the story on television.

homelessThe woman – without being sensational – spoke about finding some cardboard boxes outside a supermarket which she could take apart and use to put on the pavement.  She did so to prevent her freezing to the pavement in zero temperatures.

I find that frightening.  The idea of not having a safe home, a bed within that home and heating to sustain me is a terrifying idea. Imagine being so cold that you might freeze to the bed!

There are many stories about people being homeless – and I fear many myths which surround them.

homeless-quote-uThere are approximately 4000 rough sleepers in any one night on the streets of Britain.  That does not count the “hidden” homeless – those sleeping on a friend’s floor, or those in derelict buildings, those in temporary accommodation which they must leave the next day etc

It is all too easy to judge the homeless person – and to believe that it is their own fault, or that they choose to be homeless, or even pretend to be homeless in order to get help.

So how does Scripture tell us to react to the poor and outcast of society?

  • We are to show respect to the poor. (James 2)
  • We are to respond in love and compassion to everyone in need. (Luke 10)
  • We are to offer help, especially to believers. (Galatians 6:10)
  • We are to offer hospitality, clothing, shelter and food. (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • We are to offer fellowship and peace. (Romans 12)
  • Most of all, according to Scripture, we are to love. (I Cor 13)

This doesn’t always mean giving money or food, although we shouldn’t be closed to that.   But it does always mean being patient, being kind, not putting ourselves over the other person, but bearing other’s burdens and enduring with them.

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To Gesima, or not to Gesima?

Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima … the names fascinated me as a boy.

gesimasundaysThere they were in the Book of Common Prayer, the names of the Sundays before Lent. The priest at my boyhood church called them the ‘Gesima Sundays.’ For these curious sounding Sundays the colours in church had changed from green to violet. Hymns using Alleluia were avoided. Things were getting more serious. We felt we were in a new devotional period, a gradual season of transition, a season of getting ready. The names, dating from the 5th century, referred to days before Easter – Quinquagesima, for example, from the Latin for fifty – the Sunday fifty days before Easter. The names, the colour change, told us Lent was on its way.

Fashions change and many churches, following a desire to simplify and avoid arcane terminology, have stopped using these exotic sounding names. Now we are more likely to find the more prosaic ‘3rd Sunday before Lent’ or ‘6th Sunday of Ordinary time’ and the colour green remains right up to Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

septuagesim-iiiFrom one perspective this curious, and now seldom observed, season of strangely named Sundays isn’t needed. After all Lent is described as the season of preparation for Easter. Do we need a season to prepare for preparing? 

I think perhaps we do. If we are to observe a holy and good Lent, and celebrate the fifty days of Easter then it will help to make plans and prepare carefully. Plans about what to do, or not to do in Lent, need thought, consideration and care. We can prepare by looking at our lives, perhaps making a confession. On an everyday level we can mark on our calendars or in our diaries what times of prayer and quiet we will be keeping. Our preparations can include about what we will read, what we will do differently, which charity we will choose to support and which church activities we will go to.

I hope we can recover the days before Lent begins as a time to slow down a little, and prepare carefully on the steps we will take to grow in, and celebrate, our faith during Lent and Eastertide.

Fr Ian

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Don’t complain!


An ancient illustration of Rabia Basri grinding corn

I learnt recently that Rabia Basri, the female Sufi saint of the eighth century, warned us not to complain.

This advice spoke to my heart, but I had to think carefully about it. Did she want to stop us challenging injustice and disrespect? No. Judging by other sayings she did not mean ‘Don’t protest’, nor even ‘Don’t write letter of complaint’. So, what was she telling me?

I realise that, as I get older, I feel a strong temptation to be a ‘grumpy old man.’ I recognize an increasing tendency to be judgmental about people and their actions, especially politicians. I can respond badly to frustration and sometimes give way to fears – or even despair, perhaps with the news from Syria. I like to make comparisons with a past which (it is easy to imagine) was better than today. But I remember T S Eliot wrote: ‘Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly…’

Those habits of mind stand in the way of spiritual growth, which is a lifelong task. What is the way to avoid them? Another Eastern teacher, Patanjali said: ‘When a negative thought arises, replace it with a positive one.’ Rabia Basri pointed to the duty to be thankful; the good in my life so greatly outweighs the bad. Instead of being judgmental, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to root out the violence in our thinking and learn to react sympathetically and mindfully. The noisy drunken football supporters on the train last Saturday may have been enjoying their one bright spot in an unfulfilling week. The official who said ‘No’ to me was perhaps constrained by health and safety requirements, or by shrinking budgets, or by the fear of setting a precedent, and so found my request difficult for her to grant. Should I blame her, even though I have almost forgotten the nurse who made no fuss when I was very late for an appointment and made her job harder?

The Buddhists tell us to practice compassion. The means we should stop playing ‘blame games’. Even when contemplating something as terrible as the conflict in Syria, if I cannot see any action I can take, I can still feel pity for everyone involved as I hold them in the Light, from the leaders who have lost control of the situation to those who are powerless even to protect their lives.

The challenge, however, is not about far-off problems but my own everyday behavior. When I took an Advanced Driving Assessment recently, the examiner advised me: ‘Always drive in a way which reduces the amount of aggression other people might feel’. I think Rabia would have agreed.

(Reproduced from ‘The Friend’ the weekly magazine of the Society of Friends with their kind permission and that of the author, John Lampen)

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Caedmon’s Song

Cover of a children's book telling the story of Caedmon

Cover of a children’s book telling the story of Caedmon

A quiet man who loved tending his cows at Whitby in North Yorkshire, Caedmon couldn’t recite poetry because he thought he had no stories to tell. Then after one especially upsetting public event, Caedmon stormed home, fell asleep in the barn, and everything changed for him. A man appeared in a dream saying ‘Sing about the creation of all things’ and Caedmon immediately sang verses in praise of God the Creator that had never been heard before.

Caedmon (living about the year 680) was an insignificant voice, a cowsherd. Now he is known as the first named poet in the English literary tradition, and an encourager to people who hate speaking in public.

Jesus Christ, God’s word, speaks from the margins of society. Caedmon (feast day February 11th) is a great exemplar of this great tradition.  The Venerable Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History’ is full of the names of the elite of the time, and yet, thankfully, in book 4 he finds space to tell of someone who did not walk the corridors of power – Caedmon.

The song of Caedmon


Caedmon’s song  could be easily remembered. It was a powerful aid to speaking and preaching. It also transcended classes within the society of his day. He adapted the ancient themes and formulas for his new way of telling the Christian faith.

So often the church has been enriched and challenged by a voice from the margins, the unexpected poet, singer or prophet. Thank God for them. Not least today, the people of God need poetic voices like those of Caedmon.

Surely Caedmon is a worthy candidate for inclusion in the official list of  saints and holy ones commemorated by the Church of England. (See here)
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