Nature Notes ~ Glimpses of God in the Natural World

NATURE NOTES has been out for a month now and the questions have started. How did it come about? Why did I write it? How long did it take? Some of the notes have their origins in this blog, which has been going since 2017. Over time the blog became more about my faith and interest in nature, and lockdown was the turning point: nature became more significant for many of us, and physical church meetings were not possible; the blog was then a means of connection with people who I’d normally see but couldn’t. The blog began to grow, and I realized there may be a book in it! I have had such an encouraging response to my blog: sometimes direct messages and conversations, but also evidence of people reading from closed countries where it is hard to be a Christian believer, or to find ‘uplifting’ material to read. I learn about these folk from my blog stats.

My devotional nature writing it an integral part of who I am – it comes from a very personal, private place, and yet I’ve learnt that others relate to it and want me to share it. If it helps people and enables even just a few to encounter God, then why not?

What qualifies me to write it? I am no scientist! That said, my PhD is in narrative non-fiction, and in particular, in nature writing. My Christian faith is very important to me and influences how I interpret the world. In this book I relay some of the metaphors I have found in nature and how they assure me about who God is and of his care for us; his meticulous attention to detail, his provision for even the smallest creature, the astonishing beauty that’s all around us.

Some of you will be looking at this as you’re interested in the artwork and how a cover comes about. Below is my painting that was the starting point – three snow geese in flight. The intention was for this to be a wraparound cover, so the bird on the left is on the back cover, with the blurb beneath. (Scroll down for a couple of illustrations in situ.)

The Blurb

‘Our creator God can speak profoundly without words.’

Part nature book, part devotional, Caroline Greville’s Nature Notes invites you to into the world of small wonders. Wonders we know little about, that we pass by yet do not really see.

Insects with Sat Nav ability, with inbuilt combs or unclipping wings. Birds with vertical take-off, that sing over 160 syllables in sequence or that are constantly on the wing. Small flowers that change colour once pollinated, and the minute flowers within snowflakes, each one unique.

Each reflection carries spiritual metaphors and application. If these are God’s fingerprints, what do they say about Him, the One who left them there, who created it all? What are the implications for our lives?

These pages will leave you not ‘spell-bound’ but God-bound, on a quest to encounter the One who is behind it, who longs for you to know Him more.


“Caroline Greville’s book Nature Notes is an extremely beautiful and timely call to lift our eyes above the addictive demands of the mobile phone, the need to fill every second with frantic activity, and to stop and let God speak through one of his favourite mediums…the book of Nature. Each reading is a parable in itself, as well as containing so much insight into the natural world. It is enough to think about throughout the day, transformative in its call to not just see, but to receive and be changed by the ‘still small voice’.

Caroline’s love for God and passion for nature combine with her creative gift of teaching, to make this a pearl of a book, to delight in and reread as both a daily devotional and a tutoring in nature and the wild ways of God.” Grace Turner, author and speaker

“Caroline Greville writes with a gossamer touch as she charts her close relationship with the Creator in whom she deeply trusts. This book is not only a joy to read; t has filled me with the Holy Spirit and caused me to pause and sing God’s praises.” Bobbie Ann Cole, author and speaker

Where is the book available? It’s becoming more widely available, but here are a few outlets:

Amazon (hardback and paperback)




Blackwell’s, with free postage:

In the US, Barnes and Noble: and

Blackbird Song

There is a happy blackbird who sings outside our house with such a carefree , Jack the Lad song.  It contains a boastful, fit-to-burst whistle, like he’s dating the best catch around (perhaps attracting her is the intention behind his song), and some gorgeous trilling.   The household have all noticed and love him.  I’ve never heard the likes of it before, and yes, it is a blackbird – yesterday I witnessed him singing from an overhead wire during my quiet time.  This morning he started at 5.24am and I was quite happy with that. Whether I’m in the front of the house or the back, I’m always listening out for him.  He even sings in the rain, with apparently nothing dampening his spirits.

     I keep thinking of a song lyric that contains the words ‘you surround me with a song’ – I questioned myself, is that biblical? In fact, it is: ‘You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.’[1]

     God surrounds us so much better than this wonderful blackbird melody, heard from every room of the house. He never leaves our side, though of course we don’t hear or see him in quite the same way. Life has had its stresses lately, and yesterday was no exception: health problems and related school struggles for our youngest, and Eliott’s girlfriend rushed to hospital in an ambulance. Yet hearing this blackbird steadies me, reminds me it’s right to be joyful, even when circumstances are far from perfect, and points me to the one who surrounds me with his own song.  The ultimate ‘deliverance’ is down to the salvation Jesus has wrought by his death and resurrection. But he’s in the midst of our troubles too, and singing, as we should be ourselves… he sees the solutions beyond our problems, and reminds us that we can be confident in him, keep our eyes on him, while we wait for those solutions to come.  It is such an incredible thing that our God sings songs about us – about you and about me.  It’s right and fitting that we delight in him and sing to him[1], but hard to get our minds around that he would sing over us.  ‘Songs of deliverance’ then: about what Jesus has done for us… fair enough, we could say.  But perhaps he sings songs that celebrate our love for him? Something inside me wants me to think this is impossible, somehow wrong to even consider.  Yet in Zephaniah we also read ‘he will rejoice over you with singing.’[2] Can we really assume that he does this of us?  Don’t we struggle to grasp that God delights in us, cherishes us, is so glad that we’ve acknowledged and belong to him? That he does is really staggering, astonishing.

     The blackbird is singing even louder now as I write this, right outside my window – insistent, joyful, delighting in life, apparently.  He wants his song to be heard.  Likewise, God wants us to get that he is pleased with us.  Whenever I hear that blackbird now I’m going to try to accept the thought that God himself revels in my love for him… even sings about it. I must remind myself that he’s more present than this little avian crooner, too.  Ever present, in fact.  He really is like the prodigal’s father in Jesus’s parable[3], running to meet us on the road, welcoming us home into his love.  And the more I think about his love for me – so misplaced I feel – the more I love him back.

[1] Psalms 32:7 New International Version (NIV)

‘Yes, Jesus loves me’ and almost every hymn and contemporary Christian song ponders the miracle of God’s love.

[2] Zephaniah 3:17. “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

[3] Luke 15:11-32.


Psalms 32:7 New International Version (NIV)

[2] Zephaniah 3:17. “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

[3] Luke 15:11-32.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy?

Photo by Anna Shvets on

‘You haven’t had a stroke – you are having one and we don’t know when it will stop.  There is usually a window of opportunity but that passed at about twelve noon.’

It was by now late afternoon and a challenging day was reaching its crescendo. At around 6am I’d discovered half of my face immobile. I couldn’t talk and my husband Rupert rushed me to A&E.  After much testing, the doctors had now reached their decision and were calling an ambulance to get me to Canterbury, where a specialist stroke team would be waiting.

Back to the crowded waiting room and separate seats a long way apart.  I decided to update the people near me – they had some idea of what was going on already.  ‘I have a faith and I know where I’m going but I really want to be around for my family,’ I said.  Then, to my amazement, in walked Paulette, one of my oldest friends from uni days and vicar of St Alphege Church, Seasalter. It was a frightening time and I was so relieved to see her. We hugged and she prayed for me, while many around us looked visibly moved.

A few hours later I was on my way in the ambulance and already feeling encouraged.  ‘You’re lucky they’ve accepted you,’ Barnaby the paramedic told me.  ‘They don’t accept everyone. They must think there’s something they can do for you.’

The next morning I was reassured by medics that they had ways of helping me.  It was considered unusual for someone my age with low blood pressure, apparently fit and healthy with no inclination to drink, and it was concluded my migraines provide the risk factor.  Hours later and a clot was found on my brain.  I was given a clot-busting injection, followed by a few more over the next few days, courtesy of my husband, and will be on blood thinners forevermore.

All I can say is that it’s been an astonishing time.  I’ve felt so incredibly blessed that I’m regularly on the brink of tears.  I have known God alongside me, giving me the strength to cope, that ‘peace that passes all understanding’[1] as I’ve been strapped into the back of an ambulance and driven at high speed, taken into MRI tunnels and CT scanners, met with doctors on my own outside of visiting hours. I’ve known the reality of having a friend with me at all times, closer than a brother, who I can talk to when there is strange machinery all around me.  The words running through my head at the daunting moments were all about him – ‘For this I have Jesus’[2], ‘You reign above it all’[3], and ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:29-31).

I am just so grateful to be alive, and though I am very tired, I’m feeling so very blessed. We’ve experienced such love and support, from family, friends, two amazing church congregations, all my Adult Education students, who I count as friends too – the list goes on. Everyone has rallied and I am convinced the challenging moments in hospital were so easy, especially on that second day when many people knew, because I was being carried on their prayers.  They asked and God answered.  So if you have been a part of that, thank you!  I can’t even begin to tell you of the difference you have made.  Yes, it was dismal to start with, and I barely slept on that first night, but there was definitely a shift in my spirit that wasn’t of my own making as I settled into my bed on the stroke ward.  I realized this must be what Paul is talking about when he mentions ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’.[4]

This is what’s so awesome about being a Christian.  Not that he gives us a trouble-free life, but that he’s alongside us at every moment.  As we approach Christmas and think about Emmanuel, God with us, ‘fullness of God in helpless babe’, we are dwelling on a glorious truth.  It’s incredible that he saw it through to completion, sharing our humanity on every level, from infant to a fully comprehending saviour. That, after returning from the dead, he left us with his very presence, so that life – and death – are conquerable with him. 

One day he will call me home, as he will us all.  Because I love my family so and I have plenty to get on with, I hope it will be a long time from here.  But I’m not fearful.  I’ve come to appreciate something of how incredible his love is for each of us, way beyond anything we can give.  He’s not demanding or accusing, but utterly devoted to us and wanting to befriend us.  It’s the season for a bit of wonder, so let’s allow ourselves to dwell on this, and begin to talk to him, if we haven’t already.  He’s for us and on our side.  He didn’t design us to go it alone, and whatever life throws at us, he’ll gladly share it with us. 

Absolute tidings of comfort and joy!

In Christ Alone, (last stanza):

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand

[1] Philippians 4:6-7

[2] Song by Graham Kendrick, 1994

[3]Song by Paul McClure, 2020

[4] 2 Corinthians 13:14 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

One for the Mums

I am writing this one for myself as much as anyone else, and I’m far from having mastered it.  But the season of departures is here: the new academic term is beckoning many youngsters, and you might be about to wave off your son or daughter.  The reality is, no one prepares you for it!  The emotional blow is rarely spoken of, and so we’re left to work it out for ourselves. It’s almost like a second childbirth; this time we’re releasing them into the big wide world in a different kind of way, in that we won’t be there to hold them.  If you are a mum you will know this isn’t far-fetched. 

     So here’s the hope I have to offer, for if not now, we will in the future face physical distance between ourselves and loved ones, and an accompanying sadness.  The thing is, God doesn’t ask us to put them down – we will always hold them in our hearts, and that’s what he does with us.  Somehow we are alongside them with our love; affirmation or rejection can be felt across the miles, and we celebrate continued contact. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians on being together while apart: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit.” (Colossians 2:5).  That was in the days before Facebook Messenger and mobile phones… we really are very blessed, though it might not feel like that in the early days of adjustment!

     Of course one day we will be separated from loved ones with no means of contact, and even Jesus seemed upset by this when faced with the death of his friend Lazarus. We read ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35) when seeing where his friend Lazarus had been laid.   On witnessing the sorrow of others, ‘he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’.  (John 11:33).  He is the best one to journey on with, all our days.  A “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”[1] we can confide in him everything that we’re feeling.  He won’t think us weak for it, or deficient in any way (though aren’t we all?); being honest with him is actually a strength.  Connecting with him in all circumstance is surely the way to go.

     Most of us are familiar with the words, ‘never will I leave you, never will I forsake you’, but I understand this translates more accurately, ‘never never will I leave you, never never will I forsake you.’  Charles Spurgeon, in a sermon titled “Never! Never! Never! Never! Never!” went further, stating five negatives are more appropriate:

‘I have no doubt you are aware that our translation does not convey the whole force of the original, and that it would hardly be possible in English to give the full weight of the Greek. We might render it, “He hath said, I will never, never leave thee; I will never, never, never forsake thee;” for, though that would be not a literal, but rather a free rendering, yet, as there are five negatives in the Greek, we do not know how to give their force in any other way. Two negatives nullify each other in our language; but here, in the Greek, they intensify the meaning following one after another.  “Never! Never! Never! Never! Never!”’[2]

     The reality for the believer is that we are never alone, and God wants us to engage with him and tell him how we’re feeling, whatever our circumstances.  He is able to sustain us.  I believe he doesn’t just want us to get through this time – he wants us to feel blessed and contented and alive.  It might not happen overnight, but he’s the God of all comfort and he will answer our prayers.  We must just keep talking to him, one day at a time.

[1] Isaiah 53:5

[2] [no. 477], delivered on Sunday Morning, October 26th, 1862, by Rev. C. H. SPURGEON at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington)

Write me a story…

‘Can you write me a story?’ asked a little girl we were fostering.

And so I did, though she wasn’t around long enough to witness it. Writing the story was a kind of therapy for me after she moved on.

When living here, bedtime stories were a new thing for her, and she’d listen well, her wide-eyed wonder reminding me of what storytelling is really about. I hope she gets to hear this story soon and she’ll sense the love that went into it. 

But this book isn’t just for her, or indeed for foster children. Every child has to step out of comfortable nests of so many kinds, feeling fear, sensing disaster, believing themselves to be completely alone.  This book is about bravery, facing life’s challenges and learning to trust.

I have enjoyed crafting a story from a natural metaphor – did you know that blackbirds often care for fledglings who are unrelated to them? (You’ll find my source for this at the end of the book).

I’ve also enjoyed opening up my paint palette again, and I’m beginning to find my way in illustration… I have a young person to thank for that.

Below are a few of my paintings…

Illustration © Caroline Greville

To buy, please visit

White Sparrow

Don’t you love it when nature takes you by surprise?  There I was this morning, walking a well-trodden route of ours, when a chatter of sparrows burst out from a nearby bush and into the air, disturbed no doubt by the dogs.  There, in the middle of this group, was a lunar-white sparrow, quietly glowing amongst its flock.  They landed in a huddle, giving me just long enough to take a mental snapshot, savour a brief moment, then they were off.  Of course, I stood and looked to see exactly where they had gone, but they’d dived behind a high fence and showed no signs of emerging.

     A fleeting glimpse of something special, as so many of our nature encounters are.

     I have now looked into ‘white sparrows’ and understand they are incredibly rare – from ‘one in a million’ perhaps, if it were a true albino sparrow[1] to ‘still a great find’ if leucistic. 

     The bird’s striking plumage makes it vulnerable to attack, and if it’s an albino its survival chances aren’t great; ‘Most albino birds do not live long enough to reach sexual maturity and reproduce. The majority of albino birds are thought to die soon after they fledge.’[2]  

     We’re unlikely to know which it is, and really it doesn’t matter.  I enjoyed the fact that it was at home in its knot of friends and kin, living as they do, not separated from them.  Were the others deliberately surrounding this one bird, aware of its vulnerability and attempting to shield it?  Again, I can’t be sure, though I hope to witness it again and have the chance to watch their behaviour further.  The most striking analogy that occurred to me as I wandered on down the lane was this: when Christ walked the earth he didn’t separate himself from people, live as a detached onlooker to observe our ways and say he’d witnessed our world close at hand.  His approach was much better than that; while he was unique in his purity, he chose to live as one of us, integrating fully and yet maintaining his sinless record.  Of course, his otherness made him a target too – he stood out, while not intending to, but this was inevitable, as it is with the white sparrow and his conspicuousness.  I often talk to him as I go, and right now the Ukraine situation preoccupies me.  And while I can’t wait for the suffering in Ukraine to end and pray daily that it will, I know we have a saviour who understands.  He’s fully integrated, he’s ‘mighty to save’[3], and while we wait and pray for peace I believe he’s performing countless miracles and reaching out to those in that troubled place.  I admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I believe we have one who stands out more brilliantly than a white sparrow amongst the brown, and we can take to him all our frustrations, worries and cares.  The cross and the empty grave tell me so. 

And the little white sparrow reminds me, too.



[3] Contemporary worship song by  Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan. See Zephaniah 3:17.

The Unfinished Story ~ What’s it all about?

I’ve had phenomenal interest in my new book already… Thank you everyone! There’s only so much I can share on Facebook and Twitter, so below you’ll find my Preface and Endorsements taken from the book.


What did life in the Early Church look like, when Jesus’s legacy was fresh, and his physical presence, for some, a living memory? The Book of Acts has been our go-to source as Christians – and rightly so – but we are not discrediting the Bible when we explore issues it doesn’t mention. There are actions of the Early Church written widely of elsewhere, indisputable historical details that speak loudly to us today; the abandonment of babies and children is one such topic. 

We have all heard sermons on how the believers ‘met together in one place and shared everything they had’ (Acts 2:42-47); extreme, we may think, and irrelevant now, and perhaps a little off-putting, so we don’t stay with these characters long. But we are missing out on much if our understanding stops here. (Besides, this approach to life is only noted for the believers in Jerusalem.) So, what else were the believers doing? And how would that look today?  

Please read the Bible passage listed for each location before you read its story. While Bible characters and events do feature in what I write, it’s important to me that you see the given facts ahead of entering my imagined versions of these places. The stories have been researched to bring plausibility and genuine challenge to the reader. As with Gospel Voices, I hope what you read will take you deeper in your own study and enrich your understanding of God’s character.  

Bible quotes throughout the stories are taken from the New Living Translation, unless otherwise stated.  


Just as Gospel Voices brings fresh perspective and vibrancy to our reading of the Gospels, The Unfinished Story brings us right into the lives, the fresh faith, the challenges and sacrifices of the early Church in the days of the book of Acts.  

I think this is a must-read for Christians in the 21st century church! We face different cultural and social standards, but new believers entering our churches (just like those in Joppa, Jerusalem, Macedonia & Ephesus) either come without previous Christian experience and background, or are often affected by other current religious or identity political issues.   

There is much for us to learn from the early church in a now postChristian society. Caroline Greville is that rare thing, a skilled storyteller and dynamic teacher. She challenges us through these glimpses of the early church, to live more bravely, to trust more deeply and to rescue the poor, the outcasts and the hurting. These stories could, and should, be our stories, because Jesus is the same today as he was then and will be forever.  

Grace Turner, Senior Pastor, RiverLife Church, Bern 

Caroline Greville opens up the world of early Christianity, 2000 years ago, through relatable characters that we come to care about, and she does it with a delicate touch.  

Bobbie Ann Cole, Christian writer, speaker and writing teacher 

In this companion volume to Gospel Voices, Caroline Greville introduces us to a new cast of characters – all of whom are struggling to make sense of the world they live in. In The Unfinished Story we meet a good man who just isn’t very good at being a father as his children hit the teenage years, a woman struggling to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, and the less than sexy reality of coping with illness in old age. There are urgent questions and no easy answers. But this mosaic of stories assures us of one thing: ‘We know how God feels about us – he’s shown it.’   

-Prof. Carolyn Oulton, Subject Lead Creative and Professional 

Writing, Canterbury Christ Church University

Old Year’s Night ~ Nature Notes

Sometimes a dog just won’t let you alone and will tap your leg with his paw, telling you to get up and take him out.  We’ve had a run of drizzle-days where it’s just not inviting out there, and the household seems to be in a Twixmas stupor.  A friend has told me this time is called ‘Romjul’ in Norway (‘mindful mooching’) and ‘Zwischen den Jahren in German’ (‘between the years’).  Call it what you like, no one is motivated to go anywhere, except by Fergus the dog, and it’s my turn to obey. 

     To my shame the daylight is fading[1], and I lengthen my stride and modify my intended circuit as I take the lane from the roundabout and head off the beaten track.  It turns out we’re in the ‘golden hour’, that time just before sunset (and sunrise) when the quality of light is most beautiful, and photographers get out there to take their most captivating shots.  Apparently it’s sometimes called the ‘magic hour’ by them, as the light can be so bright and brilliant that it competes with the streetlights and the shine from house windows.  Right now it’s more subdued, but all the better for it – everything is bathed in a soft, pink light: the bare tree trunks take on a warm hue, while the meadow we stop beside glows an invitation to all the rabbits and birds that are hiding from view, while we intruders come through.  The old man’s beard and dead grasses look other-worldly and wonderful, their faded tones absorbing the new light.  It’s like viewing the scene through a photographic filter lens, but you couldn’t capture the feeling it creates inside you, no matter how hard you tried – it’s a still evening, which is part of it.  I could be in a church waiting in silence for the bride – a meaningful hush is here as beauty is both enjoyed and anticipated.  Now a robin flies in front of us and lands in a branch close to me. Her outline is unmistakable, though she’s without colour as the light is fading fast.  I greet her, before a rook startles her from above and sends her flying.   

     We think of winter as cold and stark – this scene is anything but.

     I pause at intervals down the very muddy path to watch the sky, but Fergus pulls me on.  I really should look where I’m going as I’m sliding every which-way, but it’s just too captivating!  Sunsets contain my favourite colours in all of nature, and, like a photograph, words really cannot do them justice.  It’s the way the colour seeps and intensifies, like newly applied wet watercolour – you’re not sure where the colours will blend next, and you cannot take your eyes off the page.  I lean on the fence for a minute as the glow builds.  It’s like watching fireworks… you wonder if this is the grand finale, yet it continues, as the colours burn through the sky.  Though you merely spectate you feel a part of it, and it touches you deep inside.

     I wander on in the gloaming now, for the sun has well and truly set and darkness is falling.  If you are reading this and wondering when you might catch the sunset, on New Year’s Day 2022, it will happen at 15.58 in Dover, whereas in Durham it will be at 15.50, and St Andrews at 15.45, so there’s some variation, depending on your exact location.  Unlike our view of the moon, which is pretty standard across a nation, the scene will of course be different depending on cloud and elevation.  It’s interesting to think, too, that other creatures perceive sunsets differently to us.  Reindeer, for example, can see ultraviolet light, giving them an even more striking sunset experience, it’s been suggested.[2] And the reason why?  To help them find lichen to eat[3].  I can just picture reindeer out grazing with a dramatic sunset behind them, a card-worthy scene.  That there’s a purpose to this reminds me we only know a fraction of what’s going on in the universe around us, and why.

     Of course, the sun is setting on another year, and for some this feels a year to be rid of.  The year ahead may look uncertain, whether on a personal or a national scale, but the sun will continue to set (unless the Lord returns), and we will find ourselves here again next year, looking back and wondering what the coming year will bring.  No sunset is ever repeated, yet its brilliance remains the same; there is often a nervous apprehension as we approach a new year, wondering what it will hold, but the one who paints just a touch of his glory into the skies is the creator of our lives.  He will hold our past, our present and our futures, if we let him.

[1] From a walk on December 29th, 2021.



Thoughts on the Winter Solstice ~

A Christian Perspective

Nature writers tend to be big on the Winter Solstice – follow many of them on Twitter today and you’ll find it to be so.  This one isn’t.  All the big names are championing the day – Robert Mcfarlane says it’s more important for him than Christmas and New Year, but if, like me, you are not intending to celebrate this festival, perhaps you’ll connect better with my own reflection.

     December 21st then, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere and the beginning of winter, according to the astronomical calendar.  We’re locked into winter now until March 20th or 21st, following this definition, which might sound bleak.  Yet there’s a reassurance in the continuity, and not least in the barrenness of a cold December day.  Trees take on a new beauty when bereft of their leaves – from the stark and distant silhouettes of bare trees against a sunlit horizon, to familiar trees in our streets and gardens which, free of their canopies, mean it’s easier to spot the birds and identify them.  Trees in winter are like friends we get to see on their off days, dressed down and adornment free; we know them better, and there’s an acceptance and a growing love for them, as they are around no matter what.

     Yet there is, being brutally honest with myself, less to appreciate in nature this month.  Quite frankly there’s not much to see on many a daytime walk.  Perhaps that’s why we’re back to night-walking again under skies spilled from bottled ink, the cold air intensifying the experience, apparently sharpening the brightness of the stars, the aliveness of it, the shock, the wonder of it all.

     You might say it’s because the village is lit for Christmas that we’re drawn out.  I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true, but those beckoning lights do take our thoughts further, as of course they should.  Christmas killjoys will point at our shining Christmas trees and ask, ‘What has that got to do with your message?  You’ve stolen that idea from the pagans.’ Others would say we have repurposed rituals from the Winter Solstice, with our Christmas trees and bringing in of holly, ivy and mistletoe.  Perhaps they are right.  But from the Christian perspective even a belief system that rejects Jesus can be found revering what he has made, though worshipping the creation rather than letting it point back to the creator.    And besides, evergreens symbolize endurance and eternal life, which is what we celebrate, after all.

     Aside from the repurposing debate, there is actually good reason why Christians deck the trees and more.  Sweep aside thoughts of Prince Albert’s introduction of German traditions to England, for it extends back much further than that.  In fact, you can take your pick.  One very old legend concerns St. Boniface; this is my favourite, and, I think, the most reliable.[1] Tom Holland, in his Sunday Times bestseller Dominion, writes of Boniface that in 722 ‘he had been consecrated a bishop by the pope in Rome, and given a formal commission to convert the pagans east of the Rhine.  Arriving in central Germany, he had headed for the furthermost limits of the Christian world. At Geisner, where Thuringia joined with the lands of the pagan Saxons, there stood a great oak, sacred to Thunor, a particularly mighty and fearsome god, whose hammer-blows could split mountains, and whose goat-drawn chariot made the whole earth shake.’  Holland tells us ‘Bonifice chopped it down.  Then, with its timbers, he built a church.’[2]  The legend goes, from other sources, that ‘a fir tree grew spontaneously in the oak’s place’[3] and many converted to Christianity; the following year ‘they hung decorations from the tree to celebrate what they now called Christmas rather than Winter Solstice.’[4]  While these latter details aren’t found in Holland’s account, he does point to how mass conversion followed; the supposedly fearsome god Thunor didn’t obliterate Bonifice – “It’s just a tree, guys,” I imagine the people saying to each other.  Holland states, ‘That he had not been struck by lightning, nor slain for his temerity by outraged locals, was widely noted.  The bare stump of the oak served as proof of what the missionary had been claiming.  Christ had triumped over Thunor.  Pilgrims still travelled to Geisner; but now, when they did so, it was to worship in an oratory made from freshly sawn oaken planks.’

     Another legend dates back to 1536, with Martin Luther strolling through a pine forest.  It is said he glanced upwards and saw a multitude of stars between the branches, which left him awestruck.  History Today writes, ‘This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.’[5]  This approach caught on, with ‘pyramids of wood’, ‘decorated…with evergreens and candles’ sometimes instead of trees.[6]

     Finally, in Scandinavia, St. Lucia’s Day is observed at the Winter Solstice.  It celebrates the legend that St. Lucy would bring food to the persecuted Christians who were hiding in the Roman catacombs.  It’s said she wore candles on her head so she could carry the food through the unlit tunnels. 

     We will probably never get to the bottom of these Christian legends, but the sustaining hope in a love that never sheds, withers or fails, will carry me through many a winter, both physical or metaphorical.  If there are whispers of hope in what I see around me, I shall continue to take courage from them and to champion them, and I will not be put off just because someone else got there first.  I’m reminded of a childhood squabble, when my brother came down to find my parents recording me sing nursery rhymes: ‘No, that’s my song!  You can’t sing that!’ he spouted – he was outraged, but he had no more claim to that rhyme than me. 

     So let’s enjoy our Christmas traditions, find cheer in the lit trees, and perhaps ponder their origins.  The skies still speak with lucidity as the stars shine in that untouchable canvas, causing us to wonder as generations have done at the brilliance behind them, and how once, a star shone far bigger and brighter than all the rest.  I love, too, the boldness of Bonifice, and now I have learned of his actions, I will always remember him when we bring in our Christmas tree.


[2] Holland, Tom.  Pp.188 – 190.  Holland’s own sources include Willibald: The Life of Boniface and Boniface’s letters.


[4] Ibid.



So little cause for carolings?

The world is pressing in again, and disappointments have come along in twenty-four hours; a postponed operation for my father, who was gowned and ready for theatre – no Christmas visit now, time to isolate – and a cancelled concert for Eliott that was to incorporate his uni audition, a solo guitar piece that he’s lived and breathed for weeks.  Then news of Maddy’s friend stranded in uni accommodation as her flat-mate tests positive for Covid… no family Christmas for her.  Unwelcome changes, and not just for us, as the nation begins to panic, and Covid restrictions impinge on yet another Christmas.

     Yesterday a cold fog enveloped the village and we hunkered indoors; even the solace in roaming felt limited.  The fog is still visible in the glow from the streetlamps, but I’ve settled again in the red chair beneath the window and have spent time with the one who holds us, and whom we take all these problems to. 

     While there are stirrings upstairs I enjoy the quiet a little longer.  As I sit, a robin starts singing outside the window, as he has in recent days.  In the dark, in the stillness, I can’t see him, yet he has my full attention – this is a well-rehearsed song, and perhaps I’m the only one to hear it, as he twills into the cold, dispiriting air, just metres from my head.

     I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’ – a cousin of our hopeful robin.  As the poem progresses, we read:

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

The difference, of course, between me and Hardy (putting aside his brilliance as a writer against my own efforts) is this: there is a ‘blessed Hope’ and I am not ‘unaware’. I have found God to be all-knowing and all-loving, and the robin’s song does remind me to look up and to be of good cheer. 

     Sometimes we need to take the lead, and there are enough voices of discouragement out there right now, while this lone robin’s simple song tells me to pull myself together.  At this time of year, an early bird singing outside a window is likely to be a robin, and of course we can acquaint ourselves with this particular song.  Like him, shouldn’t we be the first to proclaim our offer of hope?  To reassure others that all is not lost?  That a new day beckons, that it’s worth picking ourselves up and going on?  While he may only be singing to re-establish a bond or to proclaim his territory, he is getting on with it, and just the brilliance of his song piercing through the night air, not waiting for dawn, not put off by low light, encourages me.  I believe our creator God knew these moments would feel uplifting, and in his goodness he made us a world that we can delight in and enjoy, when personal or even national circumstances may depress us.

     I’m wondering if there is, perhaps, a beauty in the distilling of nature, in the absence of so much of what we enjoy – the flowers, the sunshine, the multitude of summer birds and their song – in having to wait, like small children caught up in the anticipation of Christmas day?  This robin’s song is all the more precious because these encounters feel rare at this point in the year.  The robin, our national bird[1] and ever hopeful songster, has become something of an emblem in December.

     I’ll leave you with a fact about him to ponder, whether you spot him today on a Christmas card or a fence post, and it’s this: every individual robin bears ‘a unique breast pattern, which means they can be identified as individuals’[2]; something like our fingerprints, I guess.  How wildly creative is our God, to lavish such attentive detail on these little birds that to us look the same, for even experts struggle to tell male and female apart.  For what purpose is the ‘bespokeness’ other than his sheer delight in creation?  Or can robins identify each other in this way? 

     The robin is not simple at all but exquisite, and ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. 

     How much more so are we. As his people, it’s vital that we continue to offer him praise and speak out our eternal hope, as Christmas starts to look a little different to how we planned it this year.

“Let your unfailing love surround us, LORD, for our hope is in you alone.’

Psalm 33:22 NLT

[1] The Nation’s Favourite Bird: On 7th May 2015, the day of the general election, another vote was taking place, in which the robin received over 34% of votes.  Over 200,000 voters gave their opinions here, and I myself was one of them!  Interestingly, back on December 15th 1960, the robin was voted for as Britain’s National Bird, too.