Today was a fairytale

Over the last few months, specifically since March, which is 6 months and completely rubbish, I’ve been really bad at blogging. There have been a couple of blog posts that I’ve been thinking about writing but never got round to. My last post was about preparing to run the London Marathon. That happened, back in April. We survived and ran the 26.2 miles in 6 hours. Pretty awful timing really. I was originally going to write a blog on what it is like running a marathon when you’re not a runner, but that’s going to have to wait for another day, because something even more exciting happened between now and then, which is that I got married!

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Obviously getting married is an incredibly special day for the couple themselves, but being a vicar has taught me that people do get married all the time. In fact, it’s a huge industry, and looking back it’s been really useful seeing how other people have done things, what worked, what didn’t, and specifically, where you can get the stuff you need. As much as I love Pinterest, it’s really not useful when you’re trying to find things firstly in the UK, but more specifically in Wales. There’s a load of stuff in London, but we initially really struggled to find local suppliers, which was something that was pretty important to us.
So to try and be helpful, I’m going to start from the beginning and try to include everything in case it can help someone else. Please leave a comment if something is useful or you’d like more information about anything!

We had a really long engagement, we got engaged on the 13th April 2014 (my 25th birthday), and then married on the 15th July 2016, so we ended up sending out two lots of invites- save the dates and the actual invites. The Save the Dates were from Snapfish- we ordered them online with some of our engagement shoots photos (more on our lovely photographers later), and they cost us about £30 for 40 cards. As we hadn’t worked out most of the wedding details yet they just had the date and the town on them, and we only sent them out to people who were absolute definites to invite, pretty much family and close friends. We’d looked at a few ideas before we went on the shoot so we had a few more ‘speciality’ shots in case we went down that route, for example:

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The wedding invites themselves were a bit more complicated. We sent them out in January 2016 but there were two different types. The easiest ones were the main invites, so for people who were invited to both the wedding and the reception. We decided to do those the easy way and ordered them from a company called Norma&Dorothy, which was a bit more pricey at around £300 for 50, but we decided on the exact wording that we wanted, we loved the design, and the team over there were really easy to work with. I must have about 30 emails going backwards and forwards until we were happy with everything! They came really quickly and looked awesome.

There were also a small handful of people coming to just the evening reception so I decided to try out my artistic side and make those myself. As with everything else, the first thing I did was go on Pinterest. There were so many really quirky and creative ideas for invites it was tricky deciding what to do. In the end I filtered them down by what I could actually get the materials for, and what wouldn’t take me forever or be too fiddly. In the end I came across an absolutely fantastic blog post from a blogger called Mrs Fancee, who not only provided really clear instructions but also downloadable fonts. The materials were really easy to come across and were actually all at Hobbycraft- not the cheapest place but really convenient. All I needed was brown craft card, a stamp and ink pad, paper lace doilies and ribbon. They were quite straightforward so came out looking pretty good and didn’t take too long to make.

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Once the invites were sorted we needed to work out the details of the wedding itself. Firstly was the date. We wanted it in the summer because the Welsh weather can be pretty unpredictable, but as I was half way through my curacy (training post) at the time, we decided that we would wait a little bit longer and get married in 2016 when I was due to finish, that way we would avoid any disruption to our parishes. We also wanted to have the wedding close to the end of the summer term so it wouldn’t be distracting for the children, but also mean that they had a bit of time left in school so it wouldn’t feel like we were going away for too long! We checked the terms dates and decided on the 15th July, a Friday to make life easier for our clergy friends, and with just another few days before the end of term. I asked for my Bishop’s permission- another peculiarity of the Church in Wales- and then we started looking at venues.

There were three that we were particularly interested in. We already decided we wanted to get married in Llantwit Major Church, which was where I was working, so needed somewhere near there, but neither of us wanted a hotel- we both wanted somewhere with a bit more character. We had a day out at Bryn Garw Country Park for Steve’s birthday, and had a look round there. It was beautiful and had lovely gardens which would have been fantastic for photos, but the inside wasn’t quite exciting enough if it was raining all day! The next place we looked was Llanerch Vineyard which had a lot of character, you could have their own wines with your meal, and they even had llamas in the vineyard! At the time though they were just starting out with weddings so there was a little bit too much DIY involved for sorting out catering and decoration.

The last place we looked was Rosedew Farm which is just outside Llantwit Major. It’s a converted white washed barn based on a working farm, they supply the meat for the butchers in town, but also with converted cottages and lodges so that the majority of guests can stay on site. They now also have camping and glamping so even more people can fit in! When we first went to look they were also just starting out so you could choose whatever catering you wanted, which we loved so we could still choose the style of our meal; there was space out the back for extra things; kitchens were onsite; you could dress up the venue but it would have looked beautiful with no added extras; also because it was just down the road I could get there whenever I needed to sort stuff out. The benefits had clearly spread because the farm was completely booked at weekends for the next year, but fortunately the date we wanted was free, so we pretty much booked it on the spot!

The only other things we organised a long time in advance were the catering and the music, things that book up quickly! I was pretty keen on having live music rather than a DJ. My cousin Katy had a fantastic band at her wedding that played a lot of 1950’s style swing and rock songs, that was amazing because everyone knew them. Steve wasn’t keen on that idea, he wanted something a bit more modern, so when we came across a band called Coverland at a Wedding Fair, they were exactly what we were looking for. They did sing a variety of music, but with a lot of up to date tracks, they weren’t a massive band so fit well in the venue, they were nice lads, and really good. They were lovely to work with, really friendly, efficient, professional and reasonably priced! We hardly noticed when they were setting up and all our guests said how good they were. I would definitely recommend them to anyone!

The other thing we arranged early was the food, one of the most important things! Gaynor (the brilliant woman who runs Rosedew) recommended a few people to us, and the first one we looked at was the increasingly popular Hangfire Smokehouse. These are more people who have come a long way since we were first engaged! Hangfire use the meat from Rosedew Farm and turn it into American BBQ. They were initially just available through pop-ups at local pubs, then bought a shop in Llantwit Major where they did all their cooking, and recently published a cookbook and opened a restaurant in Barry which has since done incredibly well. We love the girls and we love their food, we go to their restaurant whenever we can and had their food for Christmas dinner last year! However, wedding catering isn’t their thing. Although they would have been fantastic, it’s just as well we didn’t go for them because there is no chance they would have had time by the time our wedding came round!

In the end our catering was done by the wonderful EJ Catering  EJ are based in Cardiff, have a wide range of menus, including some really interesting ones, including BBQ, Mediterranean and carving dishes; their desserts are delicious, and they even do drinks as well. They have a professional team who know exactly what they’re doing and can be really flexible with what you want. On the day they were so efficient, even when things went wrong in areas that had nothing to do with them they were on hand and did their absolute best to sort things out, because they actually do care about you having a good day. When we first planned the day we met with Emma who put our menu together, and then on the day we had Kate who liaised between us and the kitchen. Everything they did was perfect, the food was wonderful and the service went beyond being professional. If I were ever to need catering again I would definitely use them and recommend them to anyone else.

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There were of course plenty of other things that we had to buy in advance so they were ready in time. Probably one of the first we organised was my wedding dress. I went on a diet after we got engaged so as soon as I reached my goal weight I went dress shopping! I lost 3 stone with Weight Watchers, some of which I’ve put back on now, but I managed to keep it off for the whole time before the wedding. Cardiff has several wedding dress shops so that’s where I went- along with my Mum, and two of my bridesmaids. They did have slightly different opinions on what to get- one of the bridesmaids favouring a meringue dress. But in the end I went for a beautiful Lillian West dress from Laura May Bridal on Crwys Road in Cardiff. It was the most luxurious shop we went to, the staff were lovely and there was a good variety of really beautiful dresses. My Mum was kind enough to pay for my dress for me, and everything was really straightforward.

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To go with the dress I had a pair of custom shoes from Lace and Love. I’m not used to wearing heels so I decided to play it safe and get a pair of flats, but I also had them as my something blue, with a silver sixpence in there as well. They were completely unique and so easy to order. Plus, because they’re not specifically bridal shoes I can wear them again.

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I couldn’t decide on what length of veil to go for- I originally wanted a cathedral train but also wanted my hair loose which wouldn’t support it, so realised that a shorter veil would be easier. My lovely bridesmaid Bethan offered to lend me the one that she wore for a wedding, which was a perfect length and had little gems in it so it glittered. It went really well with the dress and doubled up as my something borrowed.

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I was originally planning on wearing a pearl necklace I had bought in China when I was a child, but on the morning Steve sent me a beautiful Clogau necklace- a heart with a rose twisted around it, so I wore that instead. I also wore a bracelet that my parents had given me on my 18th Birthday.

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The bridesmaids dresses were a little more difficult. As one of my bridesmaids was my 10-year old stepdaughter, I wanted a style that would look good on all of them with differing body sizes. I also wanted something that they would be happy to wear themselves after the wedding so didn’t want anything too formal. After we threw around a few ideas, we eventually found some dresses from an online Vintage dresses supplier called Lindy Bop. We went for their ‘Sally May’ style, which matched the lace styling of my wedding dress, wasn’t too short, wasn’t too low cut, was the right colour and was a style to fit most people. We did have a slight issue with the sizing as the sizes were smaller than advertised, so we had to order a couple more and do some switching around. We also had to have my stepdaughters altered as the body was a bit too long for her. On the day they all looked perfect though. I asked the girls to pick their own shoes so they could choose what they would be most comfortable in, as long as they were the same colour. I bought Katy-Grace a pair of blue lace Toms which went perfectly but that she could still walk in!

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The other girly parts were of course the hair and make-up and flowers! I don’t usually wear make-up so I wanted somebody who would be able to make it look naturally but still cover up blemishes for photos. I eventually found a girl called Jess Mac who is based up in Brecon. I went up for a trial and she was absolutely perfect. I felt really good but not overdone, and she worked out a style of hair that was nice and loose but still felt under control. The girls had asked for up-do’s so she came and got them all looking the same while they did their own make-up, and did some soft curls and lip balm for Katy-Grace. Jess was also really useful in making sure all the girls bows were tied the same, and being an all-round calming presence.

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Flowers were something that we wanted to source locally. Partly because we believe in supporting our local communities, and partly because the less distance flowers have to travel the better! We used Pastures Green in Llantwit Major, where Joanne was really helpful and accommodating in helping me work out what I wanted- as I know nothing about flowers. She spent time looking at print out bouquets with me, worked out which flowers would work in the waterfall shape I wanted, and what wouldn’t look like I expected it to on the day! She also needed to point out which ones were actually fake flowers! She came and dropped them off right on time in the morning, and they looked wonderful- even if my stepson (the ring bearer) did object to wearing a buttonhole because ‘they’re too girly!’

One of the other major decisions we had to make was about our wedding rings. I didn’t think there would be too many options for these, but even within plain rings there is colour and thickness, and that’s before you move away from plain! One of the things I felt strongly about was that I wanted a fairtrade ring. These were quite difficult to come across in Wales so we had to look further afield. We found a company called Cred Jewellery who are based in Chichester, and have a brilliant selection of Fairtrade gold rings. I’d already decided I would prefer white gold to yellow, as it goes with my engagement ring, and I eventually found a ribbon twist style that fits around the stone in my engagement ring and has little diamonds around the front. Steve originally wanted to look elsewhere for his, but after we tried a supplier Bristol and their prices weren’t transparent or anywhere near what was advertised on their website, we went back to Cred and bought his from there as well. They came much quicker than expensive and I definitely feel it was worthwhile paying a bit extra for Fairtrade.

Another thing that was tricky to sort out was Steve and the boys suits. We wanted something a bit different, and decided on a grey tweed suit, but after we’d decided that we found it was quite difficult to actually source! After a while I found, through someone else’s blog, a company called Victor Valentine who are based near Southampton, but when we went to visit them they were probably a level above what we were after. Beautiful suits but more if you’re looking to buy a nice suit than hire for a one-day wedding! Eventually though, we noticed on Facebook that one of the local Swansea men’s wedding suppliers had started stocking tweed suits. Crush Menswear introduced a blue grey tweed suit that was exactly what we were looking for, and hire, including shoes, was a lot more affordable than Victor Valentine. We booked in and got everyone measured up, and that all sorted itself out as well!

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Another couple of people who need mentioning are people who contributed to the venue itself. When we were working out how to decorate the venue we quickly realised that the cost could go up very quickly if you were to buy everything you wanted. So we found another local company called Dear Florence who hire out rustic wedding decorations at reasonable prices so you can actually get everything you want, and have things that are normally hard to find. They are also really useful because they’ll put things up for you which is great when you want bunting on high ceilings! We hired vases, log slices, bunting, banners, chalkboards, sweet jars, table runners, lanterns, and easels. What could have cost us hundreds of pounds cost a fraction of that and was all put together for us.


The other thing we hired in was a tent for the children to play in from another (!) local company, Goodyhoo Glamping. Goodyhoo (Gwdihw) means owl in Welsh, and their bell tents have a cute, rustic feel to them. If we had been staying on site on our wedding night we probably would have hired their bridal tent, but instead we hired the Little Hoots tent for our younger guests. It was filled with toys and colouring and kept the little people (and some of the bigger people) entertained all evening.

But the reason we’re able to look back on all these wonderful people is because of our fantastic photographers, Nom and Malc at Mustard Yellow Photography. The benefit of having a couple, is that there was someone to be with both us in the morning, and make sure nothing was missed. They were at the front and back of church, inside and outside, all around the venues. They came out for our group meal the night before to get to know everyone. They were generally really friendly so everyone was so relaxed. Malcolm helped to sort out the men’s ties, while Naomi helped with my dress. We felt comfortable around them all day so they caught pictures of us looking natural, not with forced smiles all day. They were really good at getting through the arranged photos that we wanted without it taking all day! Definitely a pair to recommend to your friends and family! Because we’d had an engagement shoot with them as well we knew that their photos would be really good, and that they would do their best to help us feel at ease so that we actually wanted to smile, nothing was forced, they were a pleasure to have around during the day, and I think that came across in the final photos, which you can see for yourself throughout this blog. They took all these amazing photos and I really would recommend them to anyone else.

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Nom hanging out with my chief bridesmaid Amy at the end of the night

So that’s how it all came together, this is what it looked like:

Jess Mac got to the girls at about 6.30 in the morning- waaaayyyy too early, I didn’t realise my clock had that time. She worked through the girls hair before moving on to mine.

Meanwhile the boys had a nice relaxed morning, going out for breakfast, having haircuts, getting to church nice and early. The service was at 12.30- it was originally at 12 but I managed to get an extra half hour out of Steve when he realised how long it would take us to get ready. The boys were driven to church in a limo which was a gift from Rees Davies Funeral Home in Swansea, who Steve works with, and driven by Arthur at Brown’s Funeral Home in Llantwit Major, who I work with. The car was decorated with flowers and ribbon, and looked very smart!

Arthur then came back to collect the girls. By that time the flowers had arrived, I was in my dress, and my Dad had joined us. The bridesmaids and my Mum then left to go to the church in the limo, and my Dad and I went in Ed. Ed is our friend Alex Grace’s orange VW camper. Ed had been decorated with bunting as well and was in his element!


When we got to church our parking space had disappeared so there was a bit of quick thinking! I re-united with my bridesmaids and we went into the Galilee Chapel to wait for them to be ready. The night before Steve had decorated the church with more bunting, and one of the ladies from church had prepared some beautiful flower arrangements. We had a few photos in the Galilee and then my music started playing. I’d had so many options, I eventually decided to walk down to a piece called ‘Who is She?’ from the recent Disney Cinderella film, and composed by Patrick Doyle. It was the floaty-serene piece of music I was looking for, hasn’t been used by everyone else, and reminds me of the day every time I hear it.
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My Dad walked me down the aisle behind my stepdaughter and –son, my bridesmaids, chief bridesmaid, and my Godfather, who took the service. My plan was to walk nice and slowly and make the most of the music, but I found myself welling up and trying not to cry, so I didn’t walk as slowly as I was planning to! We sang our favourite worship songs in the service, from an order designed by our lovely friend Bethan Wigley.

 

My brother and our eldest stepson read the readings, my Godfather led the service and preached, and our friends Chris Bowler and Caz Ellis-Gowland prayed for us. It felt like it went so quickly I can hardly remember what happened! After the service we had refreshments, which people from church had brought, in the back of church so that we could talk to people, and while that was happening the bell ringers were ringing the bells for us. My friend Abi Marchant brought a cake for us to cut in church, and then we went for some photos.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t everything we were hoping for. Our two photo stops were Ogmore beach and castle. When we arrived it was raining and windy, so we got some very picturesque but windswept shots with the kids and then sent them back to warm up!

We then went on to the castle where it had eased off a bit and had a few more photos between the ruins and among the sheep. While all of this was happening people were arriving at the barns and having drinks and canapes, the drinks we’d bought at Bookers a couple of weeks before. When we were cold enough we headed back as well and met everyone there.

When we arrived we checked out the dining room. Dear Florence and EJ had helped to lay the tables up, and the place names were pebbles that I’d been collecting and had written people’s names on with quotes on the other side. I’d also ordered little children’s packs to keep the little ones entertained. The table plan I had made using an old photo from a charity shop, a map from eBay of Europe, the same font and card I’d used for the invites, pins and wool. Each table was based on a different country or place that we’ve visited so the map included them all. We had the top table as Clovelly, where we were engaged, which had fudge, Gran Canaria had sangria, Barcelona had mojitos, Amsterdam had stroopwaffles, Paris had macarons, Cardigan had welsh cakes, Moscow had raspberry vodka, London had gin and elderflower and Edinburgh had Baileys hot chocolate.

Before we sat down to eat we had some group photos that we’d wanted. We both prefer the more natural photos that were taken throughout the day, but there were a few groups of people we wanted to make sure we had. Our families were key, as well as my friends from university and our friends from college. There’s also a Simpson family tradition of having a whole family and a cousins picture at weddings. I have a collection that I’m adding to as each of us gets married, it’s interesting to see how we’ve all changed over the years!

 

After dinner we had formal speeches from my Dad, Steve, our eldest Ryan, Steve’s best man Ben and his groomsman Chris. They were all really lovely. Ryan was only 13 and really nervous, but spoke extremely confidently, reacting to people’s laughter and ad-libbing as he went along, speaking for the three children. He’s got a potential career in public speaking ahead of him! Chris is a judge and got into character for his speech, sentencing us to a life sentence. My brother Dan also came up with a surprise speech from him and his wife Anna. She is very artistic and had drawn a cartoon strip which they projected onto the wall and narrated as they went through, telling the story of my family’s reaction to our relationship, which was really funny.

We finished off the evening with some dancing, cake, sparklers and bacon sandwiches. Our first dance was I won’t give up by Jason Mraz and then the band kicked in for the rest of the evening. By that point I was quite tired and my dress was more structured than I’m used to so I wasn’t feeling great. We both went around chatting to a few people, but in hindsight there were loads of people we missed, which was a shame as there were so many people there we don’t see very often.

After a while I decided there was only one thing for it, and went to change into my pyjamas. We left the reception at about midnight, through an arch of sparklers, then my amazing bridesmaid Amy drove us to Heathrow, where we stayed the night before flying off on our honeymoon the day after- more on that later!

So there you have it, I can’t see how I could have possibly left anything out but I probably have. You can see now why it took me so long to get around to writing it, well done if you’ve managed to read it all the way to the bottom! Our wonderful friends and family have been really generous both with their time, helping to clear out the barn the day after the wedding when we had left, and also with their money- our wedding gifts enabled to have an amazing honeymoon. We had a fantastic day and it largely due to everyone who came to celebrate with us. If you’re reading this and want to know more about anything then please feel free to get in touch and I will do my best to answer any questions. Particularly any brides to be who are finding it a bit overwhelming, just take it a step at a time and remember that at the end of the day, it’s all about you and your husband. If something is important to you then prioritise it, but don’t waste your time trying to please everyone else or juggle opinions because you’ll never win. Just enjoy it. Don’t stress when things go wrong because inevitably something will. Our day was perfect even with the things that didn’t work out. Looking back you’ll remember the things that worked, not the things that didn’t quite come together. Good luck!

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Do the work of an evangelist

Last week in the lectionary we had the wonderful passage from 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 in which Paul is telling Timothy how he should lead his church. We also had the persistent widow story with the encouragement to keep praying. My husband was preaching so he preached on prayer, but the Timothy reading really struck a chord with me so I brought it back to church this week to look at it again.

For some people this passage may be familiar, it is quite a well-known reading even when you don’t have it two weeks running. It’s very memorable because it is very strong, it leaves no room for doubt. “Preach the Word. Be prepared. Correct, rebuke, encourage. Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

It’s quite easy when we read the New Testament letters to build up a picture in our head of who is talking. Paul comes across as very confident, not afraid of conflict, he is willing to risk everything and challenge anyone for the sake of the gospel. But Timothy, who Paul is writing this passage to, is not like that.

Timothy is a pastor who has been put in place in Ephesus to put false teaching straight. The church was still very young and was finding its feet in what was true, and what was misinterpretation, or just plain wrong, so Timothy was there to keep the church going down the right path. But unlike Paul, he was timid, he was young, he was frequently ill, he led by quiet example, his strengths were in preaching and teaching and he had a firm faith which was handed down to him by his mother and grandmother.

Timothy was an excellent witness to Jesus, but he was not an evangelist like Paul. He was not confident in going out and telling people about what Jesus had done for him, and the reason why he had become one of those first followers. But Paul knew that evangelism- which is literally just sharing the good news- was part of his role, which is why he writes to do the work of an evangelist. Paul is admitting that he is not an evangelist already- and telling him to become one, to construct and make himself into the form of an evangelist.

There will be some of you for whom the idea of talking to other people about your faith, about why you are a Christian and the difference that makes to your life, is really exciting. I’m sure there are lots of Paul’s sitting in congregations all over the country. However, there will also be lots of Timothy’s. And I would be the first to say that I’m one of them. I hate talking to people I don’t know. The idea of having a conversation with someone about my faith is terrifying, it makes me really nervous and is generally the last thing I want to do. Which is why it’s even more amazing that I ended up ordained!

The problem is, that I firmly believe that as a Christian, it is part of my job. Not as a leader, but as a Christian. I think that if the message of the bible-that God created the world and loved those who follow him; that the people God chose were incapable of loving him back and so kept pulling themselves away from him; that God cared enough to send his Son to die on a cross so that everyone who follows Jesus can have a relationship with God even though they still pull themselves away; and that one day Jesus will come back and create a new heaven and a new earth; I think that if you become convinced of that message, then it is so big, so important, so life-changing, that you should do something about it. That I should do something about it.

If I believe that if I really love my neighbour, as I claim I do, then I should want him to become convinced of all that as well, because in the end it will save his life. Evangelism is the vital task of every single Christian, not just the ones who stand at the front of church or wear silly clothes. I think part of the reason that we switch off as soon as someone talks about evangelism is because we don’t really understand what it is, and we’re scared of doing it.

How many of you have been through your local high streets and come across people preaching on the street corner, or singing outside Primark, and thought, ‘that’s not for me, I could never do that’, and assumed that’s what evangelism is? For years I thought that was what the word meant. For a certain type of person that way of sharing their faith is what excites them and where they feel confident, but that’s not for everyone.

We all have our own gifts, temperament and passions, and we will each have a way of sharing our story, because that is all we are doing, in a way that fits with how God has made us. That will initially stretch us to grow our faith, but that is relaxed and natural to us.

When I was on the CPAS Arrow Leadership Programme residential last week, which is a course specifically for Christian leaders so has a big emphasis on sharing our faith in that context, we had a day on evangelism. As a leader, the way and the opportunities we have will be different. The pastor J John, when he’s asked what he does, replies by saying that he works for a global enterprise, with outlets in every country, that runs hospitals, hospices, homeless shelters, does marriage work, runs orphanages, feeding programmes, educational programmes, is involved in justice and reconciliation, looks after people from birth to death, deals in behavioural alteration, is intergalactic- including everyone who’s come before us, and it’s called the church.

I mentioned that at a discussion on Arrow and was asked if that’s how I reply, and I had to be honest and admit that I probably can’t pull it off. As much as I love how exciting and hardworking he portrays the church, I don’t have the guts to respond like that. If you ask my husband, I’ll have conversations with random strangers all the time, but what actually happens is that I only manage to talk to people when they talk to me on a train.

In the last five years I’ve been on a train on my own twice, and in both those journeys people have approached me to talk about faith. I made the mistake of praying on Arrow last week that God would give me opportunities to talk to people. Last Sunday my husband preached that prayer is powerful and is answered. Annoyingly, God did answer that prayer, a good lesson to only pray for things you actually want to happen. On my first train I was with 2 other Arrow participants and we were asked a lot of complicated questions by an astrophysicist. On my second train a visiting American asked me what a vicar does after I accidentally let slip that I can find my way around a graveyard. And in the gap waiting for my third train a young professional started asking about the church and service, leading onto our role in baptisms and funerals, and finally Christianity in schools. I was exhausted by the time I got home, but fortunately there was a pizza waiting.

The benefit that I have as a leader is not that I’m automatically more confident or better equipped to give answers, but just that when people ask me what I do, I have a way in to talk about my faith. That’s it. But that’s not an excuse for not talking about your faith. 1 Timothy says to Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, and our reading this morning also says to be prepared in season and out of season.

To cut a long story short, always be prepared to tell your story. What motivates your life? What gives you hope? What difference does it make that you follow Jesus?

Jesus himself gives us a pretty good clue what difference he makes: “The “Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Jesus is good news. If we don’t believe that then why are we coming to church? If we do believe that Jesus is good news, then why aren’t we sharing that good news with the world?

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I recently heard this story called the Parable of the Candles told by Max Lucado, which is in the back of one of his books:

There was a blackout one night. When the lights went out, I fumbled to the cupboard where we keep the candles for nights like this. I lit four of them. I was turning to leave with the large candle in my hand when I heard a voice, “Now, hold it right there.”

“Who said that?”

“I did.” The voice was near my hand.

“Who are you? What are you?”

“I’m a candle.”

I lifted up the candle to take a closer look. There was a tiny face in the wax. “Don’t take me out of here!”

“What?”

“I said, Don’t take me out of this room.”

“What do you mean? I have to take you out. You’re a candle. Your job is to give light. It’s dark out there.”

“But you can’t take me out. I’m not ready,” the candle explained with pleading eyes. “I need more preparation.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “More preparation?”

“Yeah, I’ve decided I need to research this job of light-giving so I won’t go out and make a bunch of mistakes. You’d be surprised how distorted the glow of an untrained candle can be.”

“All right then,” I said. “You’re not the only candle on the shelf. I’ll blow you out and take the others!” But right then I heard other voices, “We aren’t going either!”

I turned to the other candles, “You are candles and your job is to light dark places!”

“Well, that may be what you think,” said the first one. “You may think we have to go, but I’m busy–I’m meditating on the importance of light. It’s really enlightening.”

“And you other two,” I asked, “are you going to stay too?”

A short, fat, purple candle with plump cheeks spoke up. “I’m waiting to get my life together, I’m not stable enough.”

The last candle had a female voice, very pleasant to the ear. “I’d like to help, “she explained, “but lighting the darkness is not my gift–I’m a singer. I sing to other candles to encourage them to burn more brightly.”

She began a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The other three joined in filling the cupboard with singing. I took a step back and considered the absurdity of it all. Four perfectly healthy candles singing to each other about light, but refusing to come out of the cupboard.

 

As Christians we are candles, and it is our main purpose to shine the light of God into the world. We will all have our own way of doing it, we will all shine to different levels of brightness and different colours. Some of us will burn brightly and fiercely like Paul, others will burn slowly and steadily like Timothy, but all of us share light with those around us. Our choice is not whether or not we do evangelism, but how we do it. How we share our faith, how we lead others to share their faith, and how we keep the desire to share our faith central to the rest of our lives.

Are you a Paul or a Timothy? What are your gifts and passions? How can you use them to do the work of an evangelist and carry out your ministry as a Christian fully when you go out into the world at the end of the service?

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It’s all about the pace

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted anything, so I thought now would be a good time to catch up. You may remember that in one of my last posts, I announced that Steve and I had signed up to run the London Marathon for a charity called the Lullaby Trust. That was in August. Since then, we’ve started to actually train for the marathon, and opened up a whole new world of pain we never knew existed!

I mentioned in August that neither of us are particularly into running, but I don’t think anyone really appreciates just how true that is. We are not fit and healthy but just haven’t turned our minds to running, and we weren’t amateur joggers and have just stepped it up to another level. We hadn’t run at all. We started in August by doing the NHS Choices Couch to 5K Programme. That took us in 9 weeks from no running at all to be able to run 5 kilometers. The only problem, is that the Marathon is more like 42km.

So we came up with a plan. We decided that each week we would run three times, a 5K, a 10K and building up a mile each week. We were quite good at doing that all the way through September and October, but at the end of October we did a 9 mile run, from Swansea Marina along the sea front as far as West Cross- which was a huge achievement for us- but Steve injured his foot, and we were out of action over Christmas. Looking back, we didn’t do any stretching either before or after our runs, we only took water with us, and afterwards we were refuelling with a chocolate milkshake and a Chinese takeaway, so it’s a miracle that it took that long for us to get injured.

In the time that we stopped running we did a bit more research into what runners actually need to make it those long distances. We learnt about the importance of stretching, particularly after the runs; about eating sensibly beforehand, leaving time to digest food, and having little bursts of sugar along the route; about drinking enough on the run without drinking too much; and about having the proper kit.

In January we were ready to get back on it. We went onto the London Marathon website and committed ourselves to a training plan- Martin Yelling’s 16 week training schedule for first time finishers. We also headed over to Run and Become in Cardiff to have our gait analysed and invest in some proper trainers and running gear. We researched running nutrition and stocked up on SIS energy gels and protein shake. We were starting to become a bit more professional.

Unfortunately, no-one told our bodies that. Our heads had so much trouble getting over the idea that we would have to go outside in the cold to run, that for months we did all our running at the gym on the treadmill. We both now have gym memberships at the LC Swansea, which I’m not convinced are going to have much use after April! Although the treadmill was a lot warmer, drier, and easier on our knees, it was incredibly boring, and as the runs got longer we realised we would eventually have to go back outside again.

The other problem with the runs getting longer, is that they were taking more and more time. We started off doing our long runs on Saturday evenings after we’d dropped the kids back home, but as we were getting closer and closer to the gym closing on us, while the sea front path was dark with no street lights, we realised it wasn’t going to work for much longer. So for the last couple of weeks, the mini-Buntings have been pulled into our training as a support team, and have come alongside us on their bikes. Initially they found the idea really exciting, but after they realised just how far we were running, they were less enthused, and we the bribery of sweets was the main thing that got them out. It was a huge help for us though knowing that they could carry extra water and kit, and that if we needed to take off a layer, that we could just load it onto a bike. Despite the complaining they did really well- and we didn’t make them go the whole way, there’s a couple of useful ice cream shops en route that we could meet them at!

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As our runs got longer we started to discover quite a few niggles and aches, and problems that came up at the same point in each run. Both of us tend to have pretty sore calves the day after, and thighs hurting when we get above 14 miles or so. I’ve found that between an hour and an hour and a half I’ll need to toilet- which I later discovered is because that’s the point when your body is starting to divert energy away to keep your core organs going, and one of the places it takes it from is your digestive system. Now, I know that it’s going to happen and I can run through and ignore it, but I did panic the first few times, particularly as most of the public toilets are closed at this time of year!

The most difficult run we’ve done was the first 13 mile run. I wasn’t feeling well before starting, and so couldn’t stomach the idea of taking any energy gels. I had water with me, but that wasn’t enough to keep me going for that distance, so by mile 9 I hit a wall. I was feeling sick, dizzy, tired and cold, and I just sat down by the side of the path and didn’t want to get up. It was only because Steve was there shouting at me that there were only (!) 4 more miles to go, that he couldn’t leave me there in the dark on my own and there was no other way to get home, that I managed to get up and finish. It taught me an important lesson about nutrition though, and that week I did more research and discovered the wonder of jelly babies. They have the perfect amount of sugar, they’re easy to carry, they dissolve in your mouth, and you don’t have the eat the whole thing in one go. For the following two long runs- 15 miles and then 17 miles, I took jelly babies and didn’t have a problem again.

A few weeks into our training we decided it would be a good idea to sign up for another race before the marathon so that we could experience race conditions, and so we signed up for the Cardiff Half Marathon- although this year it happened to be the IAAF World Half Marathon. After doing a 17 mile run the week before, we were pretty confident about our ability to do it; but what we hadn’t factored in was that it was at the end of Holy Week, which for us vicars is pretty busy, and so we were already fairly tired. We also didn’t realise how nervous knowing you’re in a race makes you, so both of us had trouble sleeping and were packing and re-packing our bags the night before- despite the fact we were only going an hour by train, we took way more than we would normally need!

The day of the Cardiff Half was wet and cold and windy. We’re used to just starting to run whenever we want, so we found standing at the starting line in the wind and rain for an hour was not a pleasant experience. It gave us far too much time to think about all the things that could go wrong!

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The course itself was quite a nice one, you started at the castle, ran down to Penarth through town, across the barrage, through the docks to the Millenium centre, back up towards Roath, around the lake, and ended up outside the University. There were a couple of little slopes, but no serious hills or anything remotely approaching an obstacle to avoid. However, when we got to Penarth Marina the heavens opened and we were drenched within seconds. It was so wet that my sweat band got too heavy to stay on my head and fell off, so that I had to carry it for the next 5 miles, using it to wipe the rain out of my eyes and squeezing the water out. The weather also wasn’t very helpful as we crossed the barrage, and the wind tried to push us back to the other side.

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It was a completely different experience running with so many others though, one that I found encouraged me rather than pulled me back- even when I was being overtaken by Spiderman! It was also fantastic having a crowd there cheering you on- particularly for Steve who had his name on his vest, that’s definitely something I need to sort out before London! Fortunately the rain eased off for most of the run. Steve was doing really well, pulling energy from the crowd, and somehow managed to notice where every photographer was and make it look like he was enjoying himself!

I was not so good at enjoying myself. My leg started hurting pretty early on, and even though I knew that I could do that distance, I started struggling. Steve was amazing though and pulled me through the race. He could tell when I really needed to walk and when to push me to keep going. He grabbed drinks and jelly babies for me from the crowd. He never left my side and made sure that we started and finished together. Just before mile 12 he was pushing to not stop until the end, but then we turned a corner to see a huge (or seemed to be!) hill, and that idea quickly disappeared. We walked- quickly- up the hill, carried on running, and then came to the cemetery where one of our college professors was playing the sax, so a much needed hug kept me going a little bit further. For the last mile we knew that we were nearly at the end, but couldn’t see the finish line. As we came about 500 yards away I saw another slope in the road ahead of us and was completely gutted. But Steve took my hand and pulled me up, and didn’t let go until we crossed the finish line. With about 20 yards to go I finally heard a shout of “Go on Steve and Rachel!” and saw Jeanette from St Thomas shouting in the stands. That was enough to finish off, and we crossed the finish line still holding hands and still running.

20x30-WHMI5588After the race we were given medals and t-shirts, which we still haven’t taken off yet (!) as well as the all important bananas, water, foil blankets and protein bars. It was such an incredible feeling to cross the finish line that it makes me equally nervous and excited for London. Excited because of the extra pride that will come from having completed a whole marathon, and nervous from the knowledge of how painful the half was, how much pain will be in and will we even finish it? We also discovered that, despite the fact we were side by side for the entire route, somehow our timing was logged as completely different from each other. As they lost my race pack and I was given a new bib number, I’m going to assume that Steve’s is more accurate- also because it makes more sense, and so we had a finish time of 2hr 33 mins. I’m hoping that for the marathon we’ll be able to finish in under 5 and a half hours, but just finishing will be enough for me!

We’ve still got a bit of training left to do still- a 20 mile run at the end of this week and then we’re starting to taper towards the marathon. Over the next 4 weeks we’ll be checking in quite frequently with the physio, eating a lots of carbs, and trying to get a lot more sleep than normal! We’ll also be making a final push towards our fundraising target, with a Charity night on the 9th April in St Thomas, and our sponsorship page still open at Virgin Money Giving. If you want any more information on the charity we’re sponsoring, you can check them out at The Lullaby Trust,  or see back to my previous post Run, run as fast as you can (mind the pacing!)

We’re happy to take any advice, prayers and support in the meantime for all you seasoned runners who know what you’re doing! Anything that will help us complete the marathon and not die would be very useful!

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Baking catch-up

I know I haven’t posted for a while, but I promise my life hasn’t ground to a halt! I just need to get back into the habit of blogging a bit more regularly. So I thought to ease myself back into it that I would do a nice easy post about some of the baking I’ve been getting up to, both because it’s something that I really enjoy, and also so I can tempt you with pictures of cake!

At the end of August/start of September the kids all had their birthdays, which is my more inventive baking time. This year I was slightly sneaky and stole some ideas off Pinterest, although in my defence, it was just pictures, I had to work out the rest for myself. Katy-Grace and Sam had a birthday party this year at the LC in Swansea- so basically a pool party. So I decided to make a minion pool party cake for them to fit in with that, based on the bit in the second Despicable Me film where all the kidnapped minions are enjoying themselves on the beach. So I ended up with a chocolate cake, for a change, marzipanned and covered with blue fondant icing. The beach was made of shortbread, and the figures all made from coloured fondant as well. The palm trees were the most difficult part- I ended up making a sausage shape out of chocolate flavour fondant and cutting it into little pieces, then threading them onto a kebab skewer to make the trunk. I made the leaves out of green fondant and put them on top, then discovered they didn’t stay up very well, so made a frame of cocktail sticks that went underneath that they rested on, they were pretty fragile though! The kids thought it looked great, which was a bit touch and go after the car journey getting it to them!

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The next birthday was Ryan’s, just a week later. His party’s tend to be sleepovers and video games, so I kept with that theme and found a design for a retro space invaders cake. I’m not sure he ever played space invaders, being pretty technologically advanced, but he thought it was cool anyway. His ended up looking a bit like a slab initially, as it is a long flat cake, rather than the built up one the other 2 had. Black fondant icing wasn’t particularly appealing to work with, but it did the trick. After that there were some tiny fondant icing things to make, but the main effort was in piping. It took at least 2 hours and left me with a very sore hand, it was worth it in the end. albeit a little bit messy. Now that he’s getting a bit older, I think Ryan’s starting to lean towards flavour rather than design and has requested a cheesecake for next year, so that’s a new challenge!

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After the excitement of the birthdays was over I had to find another reason to bake, but fortunately we decided to run the Big Bake competition in church again this year, which is an event to support Tearfund’s No Child Taken campaign. We ended up raising £110 for Tearfund, and I got to do loads of baking and eating other people’s yummy cakes, so it was a win-win situation really. The event was split into three rounds to make it more challenging, and someone was eliminated at each round so by the final there were only 2 bakers left. The first round was the cake round, which is always interesting to see the huge variety of cakes, as that was the only guidelines we gave. We had a smarties pinata cake, caramel apple, chocolate, coffee and ferrero rocher (baked in, it was amazing), pineapple upside down cake, lemon curd cake, butterscotch and caramel and an amazing chess board cake. Fortunately they were spread over a few weeks, or it could have been a cake overload.

When it came to my turn I decided to make an angel food cake, which I’ve never made before but I wanted to take the opportunity to try something new. The recipe is Mary Berry’s from the Bake Off book from last year. It’s basically a very light cake with highly whisked egg whites, which you then fold the flour into very carefully, which gives it a fantastic consistency. I didn’t have a ring mould to make it in so I had to improvise, and found the recipe quite a fun one to follow, as the cake cools upside down! The icing was light and creamy, with a lemon curd and passion fruit coulis to go with it. I was up against the coffee and ferrero rocher cake, and it was very tight, but I won! Phew!

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The next round was the biscuit round. I made something I had made before this time, but that had a few stages- Millionaire shortbread. The shortbread is my favourite recipe, using cornflour and icing sugar to make it really light. The caramel was one that used condensed milk and golden syrup, so was fairly straightforward but nerve-wracking working out whether you’ve got the right consistency. Then melted dark chocolate to top, and I did some white chocolate as well to make it look a little bit prettier. My opponent that week wasn’t as keen on making biscuits, so I made it through the semi final as well.

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The final then was the bread round, and I was against Eleanor, who is a very good baker, so I decided to make a very complex recipe, that I have made before but had help last time, to see if I could beat her. The recipe was an apricot couronne, which was a technical challenge in last year’s bake off. You have to make a dough and leave it to prove. While it’s proving you make a filling with butter, sugar, orange, walnuts, apricots and raisins, and then when the dough is ready you roll it out and spread the filling on it, then roll it into a long sausage shape. Then you have to cut it vertically down the middle and weave the sides together to make a crown. When you’ve got the shape you leave it to prove again before baking, then when it’s baked it’s glazed with apricot jam, drizzled with icing and scattered with flaked almonds. Eleanor had made savoury rolls, so it was a nice complement, but the recipe won out, and the couronne won.

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As a way of phasing out the baking rather than stopping straight away, I also made some apple and raisin crumble bars, and chocolate and orange muffins for a church bake sale raising money for the refugees, but didn’t get round to taking pictures of them. So, that’s the autumn baking update complete. I’m hoping to get some fundraising baking in at some point for the London Marathon and the Lullaby Trust, but at the moment I think my church are still full up!

Run, run as fast as you can (mind the pacing!)

Most of you who know me well will know that the mere thought of exercise brings me out in a cold sweat! But as many of you will know, earlier this year in Steve’s community, we lost a beautiful little girl Erin from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). At the time the best source of information we could find on this was published by The Lullaby Trust. This charity supports families who have lost children, supports families as they have future children (with monitors), offer days out to families who have lost children and invests a huge amount in research to try and reduce the number of children who sadly die each year. Since the loss of Erin, we have been made aware of others in our friendship groups and parishes who have also lost children, which we were completely unaware of. Because of this we have decided to try and raise as much money as possible for the Lullaby Trust. To do that me and Steven will be doing various fundraising events leading up to April next year with the hope of raising £5000. This money will train 25 A&E staff in how best to support families when a baby dies suddenly and unexpectedly and also provide 450 information packs to raise awareness of safe sleep messages among young parents.
Our fundraising will culminate in something that scares the life out of both of us! Running the 2016 London Marathon. For two people who don’t even run to the car in the rain, this is an absolutely massive thing! Dont take my word for it…instead listen to Stephen Fry. If you see me running around the Parish…please be nice…..and please give generously here!  www.virginmoneygiving.com/team/Vicars

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Half the person you used to be

I know I haven’t blogged for a while. Things have been quite busy the last few weeks, what with the end of term and now the summer holidays. But that’s partly just an excuse. There’s been a blog that I’ve been sitting on for a while, but it’s taken me until now to actually dedicate the time to sit down and write it. It’s quite a long story, so I’m going to start from the beginning. There’s not many people who I’m friends with now who have known me for more than a couple of years, so there’s not many people who will have seen this story through from the beginning, but it will have been one that you’ve heard before.

Like most girls, I struggled with my weight throughout my teenage years. Granted, I was pretty cute when I was little:

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Seriously, what happened to the curly fair hair? One of the few conversations I can remember from when I was about 11, was with a friend and we were looking forward to growing out of our puppy fat, and wondering how you could tell when it wasn’t puppy fat any more. It only went downhill from there though really. It all came down to the fact that I enjoyed food and didn’t enjoy exercise. I didn’t suffer any traumatic event that led me to over-eat, and I wasn’t particularly bullied. I had some great friends when I was growing up, a lot of whom I’m still in touch with. But nothing really changed, I moved schools a couple of times, and before I knew it, I was 18 and weighed 18 stone. I’d managed to pretty much keep my weight at the same level as my age all the way through my teenage years, since I was about 11.

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This is a picture of me at my Sixth Form Prom when I was 18. I find it difficult to reconcile it to how I look now, but there we go. Before I went to university I took a gap year and went to Antigua for 6 months working for St John Ambulance. When I was there I lived with the woman who had been working to start the organization up in that region, and fairly soon after I arrived was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to lose weight, and so I was put on the same diet as she was on. In all fairness, she was right, and I did need to lose weight. But being 18 years old, away from home from the first time and on the other side of the world to anyone I knew, she maybe could have chosen a kinder way of saying it. So, for those 6 months I ate a cheese and ketchup sandwich for lunch, and boiled squash, broccoli and carrot for tea. Saturdays were treats and we would get rice and peas and BBQ chicken from the community barbecue. And occasionally we would have friends over or go out for dinner and I’d get to eat a bit more. Not surprisingly, this did the trick, and I lost 6 stone in the 6 months that I was away.

When I got back my family managed to keep the drama to a minimum, but when I went back to work in the pub, the old farmers didn’t recognise me. For the first time I started enjoying shopping with my friends and felt less out of place when we went out.

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That one was taken in Antigua, so you can see how dramatic the difference was. A couple of months after getting back I went off to university in Bangor, with a level of confidence that I hadn’t had before. I wasn’t worried about meeting new people and what they would think about me, although how I thought I looked still hadn’t quite caught up with how I actually did. It caught me by surprise when people found me attractive, and I didn’t really know what to do about it. While most of my friends had been maturing in this way at school, it was brand new territory to me, and I made quite a few mistakes along the way. Fortunately I had a really strong group of friends through all three years at university, and they were so supportive when I made stupid mistakes. They helped me to feel good about myself regardless of what my size was, and I was really happy while I was university. Not surprisingly, the student lifestyle took its toll and my weight started to creep up again, but I didn’t really mind that much.

When I was in my final year at Bangor I started going through the selection process for ordination in the Church in Wales. I went through my provincial panel in the April of 2011, was accepted, and started at St Michael’s Theological College in Cardiff in the September. The problem that I had at college, was that our meals were provided for us. The people who made them were good at their jobs, and made particularly good desserts, so I started getting bigger again. I still didn’t mind though, because while in college I met Steve. We started dating in my second year, when he had begun his curacy, and we got engaged in April 2014.

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The day that Steve proposed was a brilliant day. We were staying in Cornwall to celebrate my grandparents diamond wedding anniversary, and on my 25th birthday he took me to Clovelly and proposed in a beautiful little hut on the cliff overlooking the sea. We went back and my family were all there, we had loads of attention and got to retell the story a ridiculous number of times!

But this is where the problem re-emerged again. Looking back at the pictures from our engagement, what I felt was not the happiness that we had on the day, but embarrassment at how big I saw myself. I decided that I wanted to feel slim on my wedding day, and be at a healthy weight to enjoy my marriage, so it was time to do something about it. I had no intention of going back on the eat-nothing-at-all diet like I had done in Antigua, so I signed up for Weight Watchers just a couple of weeks after we got back.

Walking into my first meeting on my own was so nerve-wracking, but I eventually stalked someone else inside, and once I was in, it was fine. I had 3 stone to lose to get to my goal weight, and it seemed to take forever. I’d have weeks where I’d only lose half a pound, or nothing at all, or even gain, which was so off-putting. But then I would have weeks where I’d lose 4lbs, so it made up for it. I finally got to my goal in January 2015 and have been working on maintaining that weight ever since.

What I’ve found probably more difficult than losing weight has been accepting that I have, because, to be honest, I still don’t see it. My parishioners will jokingly tell me not to lose any more or they won’t see me any more, and people who I don’t see very often are still shocked at how different I look, but I don’t see it. There are still areas of my body that I’m not happy with. But I’m now working to get to a place where I can accept that the weight I am is what is healthy for me, and all the things that I think are wrong are just that- just me.

The important thing is that Steve thinks I’m beautiful, the children think I look thin. Although Ryan says he doesn’t really notice the difference, I’m just Rachel. And that is absolutely fine. That’s what I want to be. I need to get into my head that I don’t need to be a size 6 for them to love me because they do anyway. It has nothing to do with what I look like. There would be more of a problem if I stopped baking!

I’ve also been extra aware recently that Katy-Grace is getting closer and closer to being a teenager, and I don’t want to be encouraging her to have an unhealthy attitude to food. I want her to enjoy eating, and not worry about what size she is. Of course, I’d rather none of the children ended up obese, but that’s more for their own health than anything else. I want to show them that it doesn’t matter what you look like, as long as you’re happy and healthy. That for some people that will be at a different size for others. I want to show them that the models they see on the front of magazines aren’t representative of real women, and that they should neither be encouraging the girls they know to be that size, or be tempted to suffer to look that way themselves.

I’m getting married in less than a year. I’m confident now that I will look stunning in my wedding dress. But I’m also confident that even if I didn’t look the way I want to look, that my fiance and my stepchildren would think I looked beautiful anyway. I’m working now on getting fitter (more on that later), but from now on, how I control my eating and my exercise will be entirely based on being healthy, not on being thin. I don’t want to go back to the size I was when I was 18, I’m already back to the weight I was when I was 11, I see no reason to go down any further than  that.

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(Yes, I am enjoying a massive piece of cake!)

Confirmation Polka-Dot Rainbow Piñata Cake

Last week my fiancé found a new baking project for me by asking me to make a cake for a group who were being confirmed in his church. As they were all adults he asked for something that looked quite traditional, but gave me free reign of what to do on the inside. As it was for a big group of people I decided not to have fun with different flavours as I was worried about allergies, and just fussy people, but still found a way to make the inside of the cake quite exciting. I did some searching around and found ideas from Richard Burrs (from Great British Bake Off) over at richardburr.london and pinterest of course. So what I ended up with was a Confirmation Polka-Dot Rainbow Piñata Cake.

The first step was making some cake pops. Fortunately I have a cake pop maker and one batch of mix makes 24 pops so I had plenty. It’s just a basic cake mix with 1 egg, then the batter goes into individual moulds in the maker, about 1 teaspoon in each, and after about 5 minutes you have little balls of cake.

The next step was the sponge, I just used Delia Smith’s all-in-one sponge cake recipe, which is really quick and easy and made 2 batches. The recipe can be found on deliaonline.com, but I took it from her Complete Cookery book. I wanted to make 4 layers so made 2 batches and weighed the mixing bowl before and after making it to make sure I had exactly half. Maybe a bit excessive but I’m rubbish at guessing. I used a slightly smaller tin than Delia suggests because I wanted the layers slightly deeper to cover the cake pops. When each batch was in half I coloured them different colours- red, blue, green and yellow, and put 6 cake pops into each tin then the batter around it. I found with the colouring that normal shop bought blue and yellow were fine if you used the entire bottle, green didn’t come out very well at all, and the gel red was fine but always takes more than I’m expected. The layers when baked come out looking like this:

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You need to even off the top of the layers before you start to assemble the cake otherwise you’ll be able to see massive gaps around the outside. To sandwich the layers I used a basic vanilla frosting recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery book, which is basically just milk, icing sugar and vanilla essence. Make sure you sieve the icing sugar though or it will be lumpy. For the icing you can pretty much just use your own favourite butter icing or frosting recipe. If you’re going for different flavours in the layers then you’ll need to think about what will go with all of them and now overpower them.

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This stage of assembly is also important because it’s when you add in the piñata. I decided to just use one layer of cake to fill, but with 4 layers you could use two if you wanted more sweets. I used a biscuit cutter to make a circular hole in the middle of my second layer, then put icing onto the first layer as normal, put icing onto the ring of the second layer, and filled the hole with M&Ms before putting the third layer on. This means that you can’t see the chocolate from the outside, but when you cut into the cake it will all spill out.

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So you finish assembling all the layers, ice around the outside of the cake- I used a palette knife for this as the cake was so tall- then you can come on to decorating the outside. I went for a fairly simple but still quite time consuming design of a silhouette of a cross from sugar butterflies, which I bought from Co-op. The first job was covering the cake with a layer of fondant icing- again, shop bought as I just didn’t have time to make it. I bought 2 packets as I expected to need lots, but only ended up using one. My original plan was to roll the icing big enough to drape over the top of the cake, but my kitchen counter wasn’t big enough, so instead I had to cover the top and sides separately, which made it look a bit messy. I smoothed it over with an icing smoother but you could still see the join where the top met the sides in places.

When it was covered I very gently scratched the shape of a cross into the top of the cake, then made some thin icing with icing sugar and water, and set about the slow task of sticking all the butterflies onto the top and sides of the cake. It took about half an hour, but I got there in the end and then just finished the cake with some blue ribbon around the bottom, secured with a pin.

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Unfortunately I couldn’t be there to actually cut the cake as it was a Sunday and I was at my own church, but I’ve been told that people were impressed, and there was a second round as they tried to work out how the spots got into the cake. If I made it again I would probably be a bit more adventurous with flavours, particularly as you have the opportunity of making the cake pops a different flavour to the rest of the cake, as well as the layers. For a first try though I was happy with what came out.

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The other side of Easter

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I love Easter. I’ve always loved Easter. Of course, when I was little I looked forward to the number of eggs we would get. As clergy children, elderly parishioners would love to give us Easter eggs because their own children had grown up and moved away, so we always ended up with massive piles of chocolate- which explains why I was overweight as a child! But then as I started to grow up I was attracted to the joy in the church that came with Easter day. Particularly as I noticed how bare the church was all the way through Lent, compared with the colour and new life that returned on Easter Sunday, When I was a teenager I started to engage with Lent as well, and so Easter became looking forward to not giving things up any more. I don’t know how many times I gave up chocolate, it never felt any easier, and it always ended up seeming pointless after the amount of chocolate I would end up eating on Easter day anyway.

As I got older still, and particularly in the last few years, I’ve been excited by the number of ‘things’ that start happening in the life of the church. Suddenly you have extra bible studies, there’s more discipleship material around, more opportunity for reflection, different ways of praying are introduced, all sorts of services that I’ve never been to before. Each year as I’ve been in a leadership position in the church, I think I’ve found another style of worship to try out- Tenebrae, the way of the cross, the Easter vigil.

Last year I blogged about all the services that happened in my group of churches, which were largely the same this year. We had 2 weekly bible studies and a weekly Compline service throughout Lent; we celebrated Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday with palm crosses; we went to the cathedral for the Chrism Eucharist on Maundy Thursday- although this time I sat in the congregation and didn’t con-celebrate; we celebrated the Passover Supper together; on Good Friday we had our children’s activity session, this year on the theme of Frozen, which was a lot of fun; we also had a stations of the cross service using pictures, prayers, music and readings; and celebrated Easter Sunday with a Eucharist in church.

This year I was really excited about Lent. It’s such a good opportunity for so many things to happen. The bible studies in the benefice were largely run by lay-people, but I was leading confirmation sessions using Youth Alpha in the same time period. The Compline is led alternately by different members of the clergy team and readers, but even so, you find that there is suddenly so much more to do and to plan for, that all your good intentions go out the window. I was determined to follow a personal Lent devotion this year so I signed up for 40 acts, and, as I’d advertised it on the first Sunday of Lent, I posted the link onto the church Facebook page so that other people could follow it as well. I did really well for the first couple of weeks, but then things got busier, and I started to just read them and immediately share the link, rather than engaging with them in any meaningful way.

I wanted to have a theme running through Lent this year, rather than the disjointed sermon topics I usually end up with, and fortunately, I did manage to keep that. We used the Lectionary readings to look at the idea of covenant, constantly linking the covenants that God made with people in the Old Testament to the new covenant with Jesus, and building on that every week. So that happened, and it was all fine.

But then we came into Holy Week and everything started to fall apart. I love the number of things we have going on in Holy Week, they’re all really varied and interesting and I wouldn’t want to cut anything out. In fact, some of them are among the most enjoyable services of the year, and a chance to see people who we don’t see at any other time. The start of the week should have been OK, however I’d put a lot of work into helping out with the Easter Experience running in my fiancé’s church the week before, so I still had a bit of a lag over from that. But the services started coming round very quickly and there was a lot to do for all of them. Added to the fact that we had our Eucharist on the Wednesday morning which was followed by the semi final of the Tearfund Big Bake tournament that we’ve been running, and it was my turn to make a pie (I lost, by the way), and suddenly there weren’t enough hours in the day.

I’m very lucky in my parish to have lots of people who do things- for the Passover Supper the churchwardens bought most of the supplies and prepared a lot of the food; and for the Good Friday Frozen session the planning was done jointly with the Methodist leader so the most difficult thing was trying to find some white pom-poms to make Olafs- which takes considerable time trying to drive around Cardiff when everywhere is out of stock! I’m aware though that I am in a very fortunate position, lots of parishes don’t have lay readers to be focusing on bible studies, or people they can work with, or even pro-active parishioners to take some of the weight off. So I can definitely understand how parishes don’t end up with the variety of Lent activities that we do.

Aside from the difficulty in organising the events themselves, there’s also the problem that the time spent takes away from time when you could be visiting people. I have a whole list of people who I wanted to visit in Holy Week and just ran out of time to go and see. There’s also an expectation that your Easter sermon will be ‘a good one’, particularly if it’s an all-age service. For those people who only come to church at Christmas and Easter, you want to be delivering something that’s going to make an impact. I think secretly we’re hoping that the sermon will be so powerful that it will somehow persuade people to start coming to church every week. That doesn’t happen.

I’m not writing this as a general moan about how busy Holy Week is, I’m just trying to give an idea of the pressures that we face before moving into the more unsettling point. We all get so busy in Lent, that by the time we get to Holy Week, we’re looking forward to Easter being over. All the clergy I spoke to at the Chrism Mass looked exhausted, and were looking forward to all the planning and preparing coming to a close on Easter Sunday.

What worries me is that there’s a danger that by the time we get to Easter Sunday, we’re so tired that we can’t fully appreciate the joy in the resurrection that we’re supposed to- not out of any duty, but because that’s the emotion it should invoke. The picture I paint for my congregations is that Lent is a time of quiet reflection, contemplation and self-examination; in Holy Week we try to identify with the suffering of Jesus until the emptiness and loneliness of Good Friday, and then on Easter Sunday everything suddenly springs back to life- we have flowers in church again, we sing the Gloria, the music is generally very joyful, and that’s good- that’s how it should be. The new life within the church echoing the new life of the resurrection. But for clergy it’s a very different story. Lent is a time of extra business, of not really having much time for self-reflection because you’re too busy helping other people to reflect. In Holy Week we’re trying to think about new and imaginative ways to help people to understand what Jesus went through. Good Friday and Saturday are normally spent with trying desperately to write your sermon for Sunday that will communicate the joy of Easter to all the different groups within your church; before going home to crash on the sofa and not move for the next week.

But that’s not what Easter is about. I don’t want to lose the wonder of Easter because I’m too tired to appreciate it. I don’t want to forget the mystery and the power of the resurrection because I’ve spent too much time over-analysing it for my sermon. I want to go into church and experience the joy and the love and the grace that I’m trying to share with my congregation. If I’m not feeling it, then how on earth can I expect them to?

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t want to stop doing the things in Lent that we’re doing now because I really enjoy them, and I think their really helpful and important. But I do worry about the ability of clergy to be able to articulate the good news of Easter when they’re (or we’re) just looking forward to it not being Easter any more. Maybe I just need to start doing all my Easter planning in ordinary time when we’ve got nothing better to do, and then I’ll be really prepared for next year. If anyone has worked out a way of doing Easter and not feeling physically drained at the end of it, then please, let me know, and I will try it your way next year!

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We Three Kings

One of the things I love about my job is the opportunity to try out new ideas in some of my church services. Every month we have a Breakfast Club on a Sunday morning in place of our regular worship, which starts with food, then some songs, readings, and a short talk, then we do some crafts, and close with saying a prayer together. This service gives a big opportunity to be creative, but still tends to follow that prescribed format. Last week though I was given the vague service name ‘Epiphany Celebration’ to work with, knowing that it was a low Sunday where not many would come, and those who did would be expecting all age worship.

So I decided to draw on some Epiphany traditions from around the world and make it interactive rather than aimed specifically at children. It was just as well I did as there were significantly more adults than children. This was in the church that has a sound system and screen installed so I can put the whole lot, prayers, hymns and everything, onto PowerPoint and go through the service from my laptop. We used the screen at Midnight Mass this year as well and people were slightly confused about not being given anything to hold. It does make it a lot more straightforward though, if you’re organised enough to get it set up beforehand.

We started the service having already lit the advent wreath, making the most of not having tidied it away yet and giving us another opportunity to light the Christ candle. I wanted to use it for the prayers but didn’t want to draw too much attention to lighting it. We opened the service singing Angels from the Realms of Glory, introducing Epiphany by talking about Christmas cards with the Magi on, and an opening prayer focusing on gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then we completed our nativity set by moving the kings from the window ledge to the stable under the altar. We have a teddy bear nativity set in this church as the main times we use it are with the school children. It’s been in the church for years and many of them look forward to it being brought back out.

When the children had put the bears in the crib we said a prayer of confession together, which can be found at roots on the web, before moving to our readings. We had the New Testament reading as normal, from Ephesians 9:1-12. The gospel reading was from Matthew 2, about the Magi from the East, which we watched as a cartoon from YouTube to keep the children’s attention for a bit longer.

During the talk, I started off explaining why Epiphany is important- that in following the Magi who anticipated, recognised and welcomed the baby Jesus, churches and families can go through the same steps of welcoming Gods chosen one. I then talked about why each of the gifts was given: gold because it shows that Jesus is important like royalty, but even more so being God’s son; frankincense as a symbol of holiness; and myrrh as a symbol of pain and suffering that Jesus would go through at his death.

But then I moved on to talking about traditions around the world that help people celebrate Epiphany and the journey of the kings. The first we looked at was the Kings cake, or Rosca de Reyes, or Galette des Rois. They’re baked in different ways in different places, but in all of them a figure of baby Jesus or a bean to represent him is baked into the cake for the people who eat it to find. Traditionally the person who found it would be the Mardi Gras king or queen. In later years they were crowned king for the day and would be the one who hosted Epiphany the following year. The idea behind it is that, like the kings, we should also actively search for Jesus. The version I made was a French one (I didn’t have time for a Spanish version which is a braided dough decorated with gold, purple and green icing). The French version is 2 rounds of puff pastry with a layer of almond paste made from butter, ground almonds and sugar, in the middle. Very straightforward, as long as you don’t try making your own puff pastry!

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The next tradition we explored was the Magi Blessing, or Chalking the Door. The date and the letters C B M, and cross symbols are chalked above the doorway of a house to pray that during the year it will be a place of peace and hospitality. The letters have two meanings, either the traditional names for the wise men- Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior; or a prayer in Latin, Christus mansionem benedicat, which means ‘Christ bless this house’. The prayers we used come later, but it caused a bit of confusion the following week to the people who hadn’t been there, and thought there was some strange graffiti going on!

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The final tradition we looked at was the use of candles, by using them in our prayers. Candles are used a lot in church anyway, and particularly around Christmas, to remind us that Christ is the light who comes into the world to banish the darkness, and around Epiphany to signify the light that the Magi followed to find Jesus.

In our prayers we had 9 candles on the table and lit them one by one, remembering different groups of Christians as we did so. Another reason behind this was that the Magi were the first Gentiles to know about the importance of Jesus, so we need to remember to pray for Christians all over the world. We lit the first candle from the Advent wreath and used it to light all the other candles, which reminded us that Jesus came to serve. With the second candle we remembered Christians in Israel, and Simeon telling Mary and Joseph that Jesus would be a light to the Gentiles. With the third we prayed for Christians in India, remembering that the Magi came from the East. With the fourth we prayed for Christians in Europe, remembering that Paul took the gospel to Rome and parts of Greece. The fifth candle was for Christians in Africa and Phillip meeting the man from Ethiopia on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The sixth was for Christians in North and South America, and the missionaries who took the gospel there many centuries after Jesus. The seventh was for Australia and New Zealand where the Christian church has sent many people to spread the good news around the world. The eighth was for Christians in the Arctic and countries where the bible has to be vastly reinterpreted to make the message understandable. For example, the Inuit people don’t have sheep, so for them it makes sense to think if Jesus as the baby seal of God. Finally the ninth candle was for people on the seas, the Mission to Seamen and all who offer Christian hospitality to those a long way from home.

After the prayers we sang We Three Kings, and then went outside to chalk the door, using the following liturgy from Common Worship All Age Lectionary Resources.

“Peace be with this house and all who dwell in it, and peace to all who enter here. In keeping with the feast of Epiphany, we celebrate the Magi’s search for the infant king, the Christ child’s appearing to the world, and the peace and hospitality shared between the Magi and the Holy Family. May this church in the coming year be a place where Christ is pleased to dwell. May all our homes share the peace and hospitality of Christ which is revealed in the fragile flesh of an infant. Amen.”

We then moved back inside to the warmth and prayed for the life of our church. Giving thanks for the good times, thanking God that he was with us for the bad times, and thanking him for the times we felt particularly close to him. We finished the service remembering that Jesus is good news for the world, but that he is not limited to the world as he is the Lord of all creation. We sang Like a Candle Flame (Graham Kendrick) to close, which I had to teach them first, but which they enjoyed, and then finished with the blessing:
May we feel the love of God when we look up at the stars; the peace of God when we feel lost; and may God bless our dreams and keep us safe.

Some of the adults would not normally come to church if they knew that it was a family service, but did come that time and all said they really enjoyed it. It was a lot of work to put together but was definitely worth it to hear that it had helped people to connect with God in a way they weren’t expecting. Hopefully in the future they will be more likely to come to other forms of worship that they may have initially written off as having nothing to offer them. It also reinforces to me the need to make sure that all age worship has equally as much to offer the adults as the children, and that they can also learn, not just be there to keep the children in check.

All in all, it was a very positive and enjoyable experience and definitely made Epiphany more memorable and meaningful than in previous years. It was interesting for me to research the traditions other countries have, which show how important a festival it is, and to pass that on to my congregation. I hope you enjoyed reading this, please let me know if you found it helpful.

The Gingerbread Nativity

Last spring I discovered a book by Renita Boyle called Gingerbread Nativity which is basically an instruction manual on how to make your own nativity set out of gingerbread biscuits. I bought it there and then, and spent the next few months looking forward to being able to use it. I decided that the  best bet would be to do it with Toddler church. It can easily be split into multiple sessions, which spreads out the baking over a number of weeks; and that also makes the story into small chunks that the little ones are able to understand. The only downside is that we started learning about Christmas in December, and the smell of gingerbread in my house didn’t leave for 6 weeks.

I decided that, as making gingerbread is quite a big commitment, I wouldn’t impose it on the other leaders- although they were more than capable of it, and just made the figures every week. It also meant that I had time to tweak the recipe and cooking times, and didn’t need to worry about who the book with the templates had got to!

We didn’t quite follow the suggestion in the book about the way to split the story- I wanted to make sure there was enough but not too much for the children to do every week, and not have the figures with variations all in one week. So we started off with the angel telling Mary she was going to have a baby. They were decorated with pre-cut fondant for Mary’s clothes and the angel wings, so there was a little more prep than just cutting out the gingerbread pieces.

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The next week we taught them about the angel visited Joseph and how they had to start a long journey to Bethlehem, so we made Joseph and the donkey. The donkey is one of my favourite figures. The front and back are made out of gingerbread, and the body is two oreo biscuits sandwiched together. Really easy but they look so cute.1779952_841301965914734_5742841736378173073_n

By the next week Mary and Joseph had actually got to Bethlehem, couldn’t find a room and were staying in a stable, so we made stables. I made a bigger version for the group nativity set, and smaller ones for the children to take home. They had malted wheats as roof tiles, writing icing to draw bricks and windows onto the side, and lots of sprinkles to decorate them. The kids also had windows cut out before baking, and then filled with crushed sweets so they had stained glass windows in them.

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The following week, which incidentally was only the 26th November, baby Jesus was born and we decorated the baby, a manger and some stars. Baby Jesus lay on a bed of crushed malted wheats (with the leftovers) rather than hay, and had a lovely marzipan face. We had lots of intense star decorating going on as well.

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We had a break in the first week of December for our Christmas Party. We have a party at the end of every term, but now that a lot of the toddlers have older siblings in school with parties and Christmas plays, the last couple of weeks before term became too busy so we brought it forward. We had lots of party food and games and songs, and just had a nice relaxed time.

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In theory, we were back on track the next week, but there were no kids there, so instead the grown ups had a good time decorating the gingerbread themselves. We were on the shepherds visiting Jesus so we made gingerbread shepherds and marshmallow sheep. Like the donkeys, the sheep were incredibly cute (even if they do look a bit angry) and the toddlers definitely missed out!

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And so our last week brought us to the wise men- not quite at Epiphany but I don’t think they noticed. By that point I was running low on icing making supplies so the icing glue ended up being quite runny and didn’t work massively well as clue. In the end I tried switching to actual glue, but by then it was too late. They still ended up looking alright though, even if they did keep falling over!

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All in all, it was really worth doing. The kids looked forward to having gingerbread every week, the adults who came with the children really enjoyed it as well, and visitors to the church who saw the nativity were very impressed with it. It would work really well with an older age group as well who could make the fondant clothes and shapes for themselves. If we had the facilities it would have been nice to make and bake the gingerbread in church as well, as it really is very simple and would save one person having to cut out lots of shapes each week, particularly when you’re making figures with lots of pieces!

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We ended up finishing it the week before Christmas when the schools broke up, which meant that the nativity set was up for the Christmas services in the church, helping to bring the Toddler Church into the church community when we had lots of guests in. If you’re stuck thinking of a Christmas programme for next year, I really would encourage you to consider doing the gingerbread nativity. The book is available on Amazon, or Waterstones if you order it in, and there are loads of pictures on Google to give you ideas on how to decorate it. I hope you all had a very Happy Christmas and New Year. Please get in touch if you have any questions or comments. Thank you for reading!

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