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An interview with Abby Ball – author of Contemplating Christmas

Super excited to welcome author Abby Ball onto the blog today as we celebrate the release of her new book Contemplating Christmas‘. It’s a beautiful Advent devotional for those who may find Christmas and the build up to it a difficult time. But don’t take my word for it… come and meet the author!

Can you tell us a bit about you and how you became a follower of Jesus? 

I’m Abby and married to Tim and we currently live in Somerset with our cat Otta. We got married six months ago. I’ve worked for about 16 years as a primary school teacher and just given that up since I got married to focus on my writing a bit more. Tim is super supportive and I’m really thankful for his belief in me which allows me to do this. I’ve lived in lots of different places. I call Birmingham home although none of my family live there now. I grew up in a Christian family which is how I became a follower of Jesus. I made that faith my own more and more as I grew up. 

Have you always written? What was your journey to becoming a published author like?

I haven’t always written but I have always been a reader. My mum taught me to read before I went to school. I’ve always loved reading and she taught me to read for myself as I have lots of younger siblings. She couldn’t always read to me so that was a real gift, and I’ve always loved to read. 

Part of my spiritual journey would be reading books that really inspired me. Obviously the Bible, but other books that seemed to make me feel understood. Even from a young age, books like Anne of Green Gables I really loved. She was a writer and a teacher and I thought maybe I could be those things! Then there were spiritual formation books as I got older. 

When I was living in the United States for a little while I started doing a blog about my travels, thoughts and what I’d been doing. That was the first time I did any public writing. And then that grew more faith-based. What I write has been through various stages. 

I think something that has always been on my heart has been to write into spaces with things that we don’t normally talk about or particular emotions we don’t normally talk about. Finding hope in hard spaces or hope for in-between times is where I try to write. I feel like I’ve lived in those spaces a lot and to just have somebody alongside you saying ‘it’s OK to feel like this’ and ‘it’s OK to be honest’ is something that I’ve found really helpful personally. It’s something I want to offer other people. 

When did you come up with the idea for your book Contemplating Christmas and what inspired it?

I’ve kind of fallen in love with Advent. I didn’t grow up going to churches that followed the liturgical calendar, although we had Advent calendars and candles to count down to Christmas. But as I got older I found that I really loved Advent. Advent in a way felt more meaningful than Christmas Day itself for me. As I started to explore that for myself, I wanted to bring my readers with me so I created a mini-version of Contemplating Christmas that I used to do as a giveaway on my blog. It was a little way of saying thank you to people and something that was short and sweet that you could read throughout Advent if you wanted to. I just really felt that was a good basis for something that I wanted to grow. I felt that I could offer something deeper and more meaningful for readers to help them journey through Advent. 

Who did you have in mind as you wrote it and what do you hope readers will gain from it as they journey through Advent? 

Part of my story is that I didn’t get married until I was 44 so that was quite a tough wait for my husband who is amazing and worth waiting for. But it was really hard. I began to find that Christmas was quite a bittersweet time for me. There is loads that I love about Christmas like fairy lights, the decorations, buying and wrapping presents, Christmas music and films. But because it’s such a traditional time of the year, you do the same thing every year. We have the same songs, the same decorations, we celebrate in the same way every year, and because of that, it can be a very specific reminder of something in your life that isn’t how you want it to be. Every year for me it felt like ‘this is great, but here I am single again’ and ‘another Christmas where I’m single’ and I found that really hard. 

When I came to write this book, I had that in mind but lots of other people can find Christmas hard for some reason. It’s all supposed to be merry and bright isn’t it? It’s all supposed to be like the perfect family, the most amazing food, and the best presents. Our culture has a lot to say about exactly how we are supposed to celebrate it. But what if you’re grieving? Grief doesn’t stop just because it’s Christmas. What if it’s that reminder of that person who should be there and isn’t? What if your family is dysfunctional and it’s a reminder for you that you don’t have a perfect family? What if you can’t afford Christmas presents for your kids? It’s another reminder of feeling like you have failed. I really wanted to write with people in mind that, maybe like me, love some aspects of Christmas, but really find it hard in other ways. 

Were there any particular verses you have clung onto that have helped you through those difficult times?

There is a Psalm (25:3) that says ‘no one who puts their hope in you will ever be put to shame’ and that was helpful for me. When we are having a hard time we can feel shame about it. We can feel shame about grieving. We can feel shame about ‘why am I not married yet?’ Or ‘why don’t I have kids?’ Just being reminded that when you put your hope in God, there is no shame in that, was really quite powerful for me. 

Things like Advent have been really helpful because Advent is a season that is all about waiting and longing. We know that Jesus was born into the world, but we also know that we need Him to come again. Being able to have that specific time that allows for those emotions and allows for those feelings to be present has been really helpful for me as well. 

In your book you include ‘breath prayers’. Can you explain a little about that and why you felt it important to include them? 

I got into yoga when I was not very well with my mental health and for me that helped a lot. A lot of the focus in yoga is breathing with your movement. You inhale on certain movements and you exhale on certain movements. Breathing became really important to me. I noticed myself automatically doing that kind of thing. 

I started coming across someone online who would do ‘breath prayers’ throughout the pandemic. That introduced me to the practice of finding a focus with your breath so you inhale and exhale, but you’re using phrases. During the pandemic it was really helpful to have that because one of the things Covid tries to take from people is their breath.It affects their lungs. It was a way of saying no I’m not going to have that. I’m going to use my breath. I’m going to fight for my breath.

There is a lot in scripture about breath. I think of the prophecy in Ezekial to the dry bones where God commands breath to come into this army. One of the words for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is ‘ruach’ which is the breath of God. The Hebrew word for God ‘YAHWEH’ you can say on an inhale and exhale. You are almost saying God’s name every time you breathe. I found that really fascinating and didn’t know that before. Just the idea of using your breath to pray has been really powerful for me for lots of those reasons. 

I wanted to include it in the book because I felt like it was an easy and small thing you can take away; a phrase throughout your day and just use it every time you breathe or whenever you want to remember. 

What would you say to readers from a different theological viewpoint who are perhaps not used to certain aspects of spiritual formation, and who may be unfamiliar with it and/or concerned about it? (E.g. using the word ‘she’ when referencing the Holy Spirit, people being a mixture of good and bad referenced from Richard Rohr etc.)

In terms of using the word ‘she’ for the Holy Spirit, the word for ‘spirit’ in the Old Testament is a feminine noun. Because we have grown up with a lot of male language for God, which is in the Bible so there is no problem with that, that can very often lead to thinking that God is male. But God is neither male nor female. I think when we go down that road of only ever using that language we can think, well as a woman I’m not as close to the image of God as a man would be. Or to be male is to be more like God. I think that is much more of a cultural thing than we realise. 

The Bible was translated by specific people in a specific time for specific reasons. For example, in some translations where it would say ‘brothers’, but in the Greek it would be ‘brothers and sisters’. Often in our culture we have used male language, like ‘mankind’ to summarise everybody. It skews it a little bit I think. I don’t use it all the time, but just sometimes use those feminine pronouns for God. Honestly for me it feels jarring as well. But I also feel like that is really important to remind myself more than anyone else, that as a woman I image God just as much as men do. I want to invite my readers into that and obviously if they are not comfortable, they don’t have to take that on board. That’s something really important for me. 

Regarding the Richard Rohr quote, we are all made in the image of God, and so there is that divine image in us. There is a verse that says ‘we have everything that we need for life and godliness’. There is an implication in those verses that we belong to God and have His spiritual DNA in us. The good parts of me are the parts that more closely image God. I think we are a mixture of that. 

I think in such a polarised society now it’s very easy to think in black and white like: ‘this particular group of people are all bad and there’s nothing good about them’ or ‘this particular group of people are amazing and there’s nothing bad about them’. But I think just acknowledging that we’re all somewhere on that journey of being formed into being more Christ-like allows us to recognise that there is stuff in me that still needs working on. But actually there is also good in me. God has done good stuff in me. I’m not the same person I used to be 10 or 20 years ago because of the good things God has been forming in me. I think to recognise both those things is really helpful. 

I think particularly in the context of what I was writing about, it’s very easy to judge people and to judge ourselves. The truth is we’re all a mixture. I can do really good stuff some days and then I have days when I’m not so great. To recognise that in myself helps me to recognise it in other people and helps me to have grace for people. It helps me to move out of judgment and shaming people because that never works. People don’t change because you have judged them or shamed them. They change because you love them. That’s what God does for us. He loves us into changing. Ultimately He is the only one who can judge anyway. 

What advice would you give to aspiring authors and what has helped you?

If you want to write, you have just got to write. Keep practising and practising. 

Something that has really helped me a lot is a smaller group of women within the Association of Christian Writers who have been so encouraging. We ‘Zoom’ once in a while to pray with each other and chat, but we talk a lot more often. I’ve found just having those writer friends who have been a little bit ahead of me really helpful in terms of encouragement, advice and support. They write different things to me. One focuses on writing for children and families which isn’t my area at all, but she’s brilliant with social media. She has been a great support and help to me with that. Each of us bring different things to the group. 

When I started writing a bit more seriously, I spent some time with a writing coach. She was an American lady so we used to Zoom. That was helpful to focus my thinking and where I wanted to take this, what I wanted to do. She was able to put me in touch with a few different people. I guess it’s finding people to get alongside you to encourage and support you. 

It is vulnerable to put your words out there because they are not going to be for everybody. I think it’s been quite a helpful thing to have at the forefront of my mind. My words aren’t for everybody, but they are for some people and that’s OK. 

You can purchase Abby’s book in time for Advent from Amazon here.

Abby Ball lives with her husband, Tim, and their cat Otta. She was a primary school teacher for many years and now spends her time writing about finding hope in hard places. You can find more of her work at abbyball.substack.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagam.