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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Warning: traces of God



I’m currently writing a series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s. They are about a young, female journalist called Poppy Denby who solves mysteries against the backdrop of the wild, care-free jazz age. She is the daughter of Methodist ministers but, since her move to London, has discovered that not everyone lives by the same moral code. Her aunt is – possibly – gay, her best friend a flapper with a string of suitors, and her boss a hard-drinking gambler. Poppy herself tries to live a moral life, but her real challenge is to live out her faith in the ‘real’ world. Poppy does not seek to change those around her – although she will challenge them when she feels they are being selfish, unkind or unjust – but rather to live out her faith through seeking truth and justice for the victims she encounters in her job.

In the first book, The Jazz Files, we see Poppy wrestling with God because of the death of her brother in WWI. She struggles to reconcile a God of love with all the suffering in the world. It’s a struggle most of us face. In the second book, The Kill Fee, she is so busy with her new job – often having to work on Sundays to meet a deadline – that she does not get around to joining a new church in her new city. Unlike the first book where we see Poppy thinking about faith – or the lack of it – a fair bit, in book 2 she doesn’t have time to think about it until two thirds of the way through where she stops, in one scene, and realises that she simply has no idea how to solve the mystery; or save the person who is in danger. She is at the end of her tether and suddenly remembers God. She turns to Him in an awkward prayer and asks for help, naively reminding Him who she is because it’s been so long since they’ve spoken. For me, this awkward ‘tag-on’ prayer, is authentic. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve been so carried away with life – particularly when it’s going well – that I’ve almost ‘forgotten’ God and have had to brush the cobwebs off my faith.

However, it seems that my view of what it’s like to be a Christian in the ordinary world – which is very much true to my personal experience -  is difficult to grasp for some readers.  I have become used to the critical reviews from very conservative Christians who are offended that I show what they consider sinful behaviour without then 'saving' those characters from their sin. In one case a reviewer announced that she never reads books with gay people in them. Period. And is shocked that they exist in a ‘so-called Christian book’. Note, I never call my books ‘Christian’ and go out of my way to avoid the Christian Fiction label. I want to write books for all readers to enjoy, whether they are people of faith or not. Yet, because they are published by a Christian publisher, Lion Hudson, and distributed by another Christian publisher, Kregel, in the USA, the label, unfortunately, is difficult to shed.

Most Christian readers, however, have felt that Poppy’s faith is naturally woven into the books and my non-Christian readers have not seemed to object to it at all. Some of them, in fact, have said it seems ‘refreshingly real’. So it came as a surprise to me last week when a reviewer castigated The Kill Fee for its Christian content. This reviewer said there had been nothing on the cover or in the marketing that told her it was going to be a ‘Christian book’ (hurrah!) and the style of writing and the characters presented ‘without judgement’ had suggested to her it wasn’t. She said up until the ‘prayer bombshell that came out of nowhere’ any mention of God could be excused as just being ‘normal’ for the period. But then, according to her, I ambushed her with evangelism (a hurried prayer asking God for help). She was shocked and offended and said ‘it looks like Smith is trying to bring Christianity into the mainstream’. She said I had no right to do that and should just ‘stick to writing Christian Fiction’. Well, that’s me told!

Well you know what, I make no apology for my traces of God. I would write the same type of books whether it was for a Christian or a non-Christian publisher (in fact my latest book, Pilate’s Daughter, which has quite a few ‘traces of God’ is published by secular publisher, Endeavour Press). But it just reminded me of how and why ‘Christian Fiction’ developed in the first place, driven from the mainstream where Christian characters or stories of faith were not permitted to exist. I am not ‘trying to evangelise’ as this reviewer suggested, I just want to write books that present faith as a natural part of some people’s lives. This review has reminded me, however, that any public confession of faith is sometimes an offense to people. But that’s their problem, not mine.


Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was nominated for a CWA Historical Dagger in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee is out now, and the third is due later this year. Her novel Pilate’s Daughter  a historical love story set in Roman Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press.Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series  are published by SPCK.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

A Roundabout Journey, by Fiona Lloyd


Given that Lent is almost upon us, I thought I’d start with a Christmas question: How many wise men visited the infant Jesus?

What do you mean, it's not very realistic?


             If you’ve listened to as many Christmas sermons as I have, you’ll know it’s a trick question. Tradition – and countless school nativity plays – tell us there were three, to correspond with the number of gifts brought, but the Bible itself is not specific on this point.

            In 1895, Henry Van Dyke’s story The Other Wise Man was published. It tells of how there were originally four magi, who agreed together to go and seek out the new king. The fourth one, Artaban, arranges to meet his travelling companions at a set time and place, and packs his bag with three precious jewels to offer to the baby. However, he misses his rendezvous, because he stops en route to help a dying man. Undeterred, he races off to Bethlehem, only to find that his friends (and the holy family) have moved on a few days previously. What’s more, Herod is in a foul mood…

            If you want to know how the story ends, you can read it here: http://www.classicreader.com/book/593/1/. But without giving too much away, it’s clear that Artaban’s attempts to find Jesus are continually being thwarted by unforeseen distractions, and it’s only with hindsight that he realises that these interruptions are in fact a part of the search.

This could be a metaphor for my writing...


            So, here’s another question: How well do you cope with interruptions? Personally, I hate being distracted, particularly when I’m in the middle of writing. (Unless it’s a self-imposed distraction, obviously: if I never publish that best-seller, Facebook and Twitter will have some explaining to do.) And I know it’s important to carve out time for my writing, service preparation and so on. But this story reminds me that, if I’m not careful, the obsessive pursuit of my dreams could mean that I miss encountering Jesus in the mundane chaos of everyday life.


Fiona Lloyd works part-time as a music teacher, and serves on the worship leading team at her local church. Fiona self-published a violin tutor book in 2013 and blogs at www.fjlloyd.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter at @FionaJLloyd. Fiona is vice-chair of ACW and is married with three grown-up children.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Iwerne me


Ben Jeapes beat me to it. I wrote this post a fortnight or so before now, but in the meantime Ben has posted a helpful and intelligent response to his experience as a camper at Iwerne Minster in the 1980s. I’ve decided to leave my thoughts in place, as they largely corroborate in brief what he says in more detail.


I was a so-called ‘senior camper’ at Iwerne Minster in 1969 and 1970. Without going into the details of the case that has been publicized, I can say straight away that I never encountered anything at Iwerne that might have suggested any kind of abusive behaviour. The set-up was indeed quite hierarchical, as has been pointed out in the media, but 45 or so years ago that would have been normal. Camps had a three-tier structure: the officers, who were clergy, schoolmasters, and undergraduates; the senior campers, who were undergraduates; and the campers, who were schoolboys from the top public schools.

Senior campers all had housekeeping tasks to do which kept us busy from morning to night. We snatched minutes to attend bible studies and prayer meetings and then bolted back to the kitchen to lay tables, make sandwiches, or prepare bottles of diluted orange and lemon squash. There was usually time for us to join in the afternoon activities with the campers and officers: I remember clearing scrub in a field and visiting the Iron Age site at South Cadbury. We had very little other contact with the schoolboys and we slept in a dormitory together.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m sure I learnt a lot from the scriptural teaching, even though specific details have faded into the leafmould of memory. I can still remember many of the rather old-fashioned CSSM choruses which were repeatedly sung. The Christian camaraderie was lovely and the discipline of being part of a hard-working team was very inspiring.

I noted with pleasure that the camps’ name was an anagram for my own surname, but this did not prove to be a portent. Even though I was invited to a special training holiday with a select few officers and senior campers, I knew deep down that the camp officer role wasn’t going to be my path. After my graduation I turned down the chance to attend the 1971 camp in favour of a holiday with my best friend (whom I hoped to evangelize!). I heard no more from Iwerne. Rather like Ben, I found that the intensive study of Scripture inculcated by Iwerne and my university Christian Union actually led me to critique some of the theology that prescribed it.

The teaching of Iwerne was straight conservative evangelicalism. A central tenet of this is that one cannot do anything to make oneself right with God. Any kind of physical mortification would therefore be out of the question. I feel pretty sure that the abuse that has hit the headlines was an alien intrusion from a sadly disordered personality.

But there is another aspect of the ethos which I consider to be the Achilles heel, not only of Iwerne, but also of a great deal of evangelicalism: secrecy. After I graduated I realized that Iwerne operated like a hidden freemasonry, a church within a church. Outsiders, even other evangelicals, were unaware of the hidden network. This instinct for secrecy lies behind the cover-up of the abuse for over thirty years.

Cover-ups go on in church circles all the time, as Anne Atkins observed in her discussion of the Iwerne story, and as I saw when I belonged to an evangelical Anglican church. Perhaps things are better in non-Anglican circles? I do hope so. And I sincerely hope that this crisis will help Christians to be less fearful of admitting the truth about themselves and their churches!

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Things you already knew - by Helen Murray

God loves you.

You know that, don't you?  Of course you do; this is the ACW, after all. We are in the business of writing, yes, but more than that, we're Christians. At some point we've heard about and responded to God's love.

We probably know John 3:16 by heart:
' For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.'  
God loves you. He does. Jesus died to clear the way of sin and rubbish so that we could live in relationship with him, here on earth, and later on for eternity. He loved us so much that when things went badly wrong he organised a rescue plan to remove all obstacles between us. 

He wants us to be together. He enjoys spending time with us. He created us for his pleasure and he didn't want to lose us, even when we turned our back on him and told him we were not interested. 

You get that? Yes? 

So did I. I got it the day I became a Christian at an outdoor meeting on a hot day in June, years ago. I have held that knowledge in my heart ever since, somewhere. At times it's been right there at the surface of my consciousness and at other times deeply buried. Ignored; you might say taken for granted.

As a teenager I stuck 'Smile, God loves you!' stickers on my diaries. Things were easy then; black and white. I was right, other people were wrong. This was the way to live, not that way.  I knew what I wanted to do and be and was pretty sure how to get there.  Then I grew up.

Life is so complicated. Nothing is straightforward. Families and jobs and friendships and money and interpersonal relationships and emotions; they all require constant and energetic navigation on a daily basis, and that's without the occasional disaster, trauma or crisis. Somewhere in the hurry and confusion of living my life, I forgot what it meant to be loved by God. 

The words were still there, but the meaning had faded like the stickers on my journals. 

A few weeks ago, a minister at church gave a blessing my two daughters. One after the other, he placed a hand on their heads and said, 
'May you know, today, that your Father in heaven is absolutely bananas about you!' 
My younger daughter giggled a little and I smiled and hugged them to me, thinking, 'That's nice.'  
It's nice. The love of our heavenly Father is nice. Nice to have. He loves me? That's good, then. 

Here's the thing, though. I was reading the other day about the wonders and miracles that God is still performing here on earth, in our country, among ordinary people like you and me, and I suddenly got it. I had a glimpse of that love; the magnitude of it. The hugeness, the vastness, the unrelenting, amazing, not-giving-up unconditional, breathtaking enormity of it. 

God is love; he invented it. Nobody can love like him. My love, in all its forms, even the strongest fierceness of mother-love, my lioness's love for my cubs, is a pathetic faded thing in comparison with it. 

I have learned, in these last few days, after being a Christian for more than thirty years, some truths that until now I had not fully grasped:
  • There is nothing I have ever done, or can do, to earn God's love. 
  • I don't deserve it, but he covers me in it anyway.
  • I do not have to win his approval because I have it already, and I cannot lose it. 
  • I am utterly secure in his love. 
  • He is delighted with me, right now, right here, just as I am. 
I want you to understand that these are things that I already knew. I don't know what kind of analogy works for you; whether to say that these truths went from head-knowledge to heart-knowledge? Or that something suddenly slipped into place? The penny finally dropped? A divine revelation? 

It doesn't matter what I call it because it's personal and happened to me, and there's no way that I can prevent you from reading these bullet points and saying patiently, 'Yes, I know,' and moving on, wondering what's the big deal. But I think that maybe it's not to do with how long you've been a Christian, whether you're a newcomer to all this God stuff or a seasoned veteran church leader with a thousand hard-hitting sermons under your belt. I think perhaps the Holy Spirit can teach us all something new about the massive, awe-inspiring nature of God's love.

Over the years I have allowed lots of misconceptions and beliefs to climb into my mind and build comfy little nests right there on top of God-loves-me-that's-nice.  

I've known that God loves me, but suspected that in my less loveable moments, his love might falter a bit. That's understandable, isn't it? When I neglect him for days, weeks, months at a time, he might put me on one side to concentrate on his more deserving children. Yes, he always welcomes me back,  but maybe there's a period where he's a bit cool with me for having been so distant. Perhaps I should try harder to get back into his good books? 

Then there's this, a big one for me: somehow, I must find the purpose of my life. I must do the thing I am meant to do, or else God will be disappointed. He's given me gifts, talents, hopes, dreams that must not be wasted. I must try, strive, achieve. And time is slipping away. 

As a would-be writer, these uneasy suspicions have found particularly fertile ground. I watch with awe and admiration as people I know write wonderful things and find meaning and success in all senses of the word; completed novels, readers, publishing contracts, book reviews, validation that they are good at something. I have asked God repeatedly, 'What am I for?' 'What do you want me to do?' and until now, I haven't had a clear answer. 

I've spent my life trying so hard to win approval: fulfil my potential, get it right, make it perfect, and yet here is... rest. 

It's come as an enormous relief. I am loved, perfectly, and for always. Can you believe it? 
There is nothing I can do to earn it, or pay him back for what is a totally undeserved gift. 

I am loved. 

God loves me. 

God loves me.

God loves me.

I am not merely tolerated, or loved as long as I behave a certain way, live up to expectations, perform adequately. I am loved, full stop. Enough. 

If I die this afternoon, with every last one of my plans undone, my Great and Magnificent Work not completed, he will welcome me just the same. He will be waiting with the robe and the ring and the celebration feast and he will pull me to his heart and hold me tight as his precious, dearly loved daughter. All this, whether I write bestsellers or the occasional blog post or nothing at all. 

It is done. It is complete. I am accepted just as I am and loved in a way I cannot possibly fathom by the Creator of the universe, Almighty God, my heavenly Father. He's bananas about me. 

You too. 

Do you know about God's love? Not just the 'God loves me - that's nice,' kind of love, but the size of it?  The reality of it?  

If not, ask him to show you. And then actually wait for him to answer, because I think he really wants you to know.

'May you know, today, that your Father in heaven is absolutely bananas about you!' 

I am praying for you. 





Banana image courtesy of the School Photo Project. The ones in my fruit bowl were less than photogenic.
For free stock images of fruit and much more, click here.




Helen Murray lives in Derbyshire with her husband, two daughters and her mum.

Having spent time as a researcher, church worker and Hand Therapist, Helen is now a full time mum and writer, currently supposed to be working on her first novel. Or at least working on something.

As well as writing and reading, she drinks coffee, takes photographs, swims, breeds Aloe Vera plants and collects ceramic penguins.

Helen has two blogs: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith, and Badger on the Roof where readers are treated to a blow by blow account of her novel-writing progress, or lack thereof. It's been a while since there was anything to report, but she hasn't given up.

Check back when the kids have left home. 

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray
Twitter: @helenmurray01





Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Duet? by Emily Owen


My three year old nephew recently decided he’d like to play the piano, so he climbed up onto the stool and began pressing the keys.
Before long, his one year old brother toddled over to see what was happening. Seeing led to wanting to join in, so he, too, began pressing keys.
But his older brother didn’t like it.
“Tell him to stop it,” he complained to me as he struggled to push his brother’s hands away from the piano keys, “I’m doing this by myself."
“Maybe you could play a duet?” I suggested.
His nose wrinkled: “What’s a duet?”
“It’s where two people play the piano at the same time.”
“Oh. Well what’s it called when only one person plays?”
“That’s called a solo.”
He thought about it, then started pulling his brother up onto the piano stool beside him.
“Come on, we can do a duet.”
And the two of them began bashing away at the keys.
Together.

My nephew didn’t know that it's ok for two people to play the piano at the same time.
But once he did know, he didn’t want to go back to playing solo.

I found this quite challenging.
I thought about my writing and other aspects of my life.
I certainly know that it is ok for two to work at it.
God and me.
Together.

But sometimes I forget that I’m playing a duet in life, not a solo.
I try and do things in my own strength, forgetting to invite God to sit alongside me as I write, or think, or wait, or read, or chat, or whatever it may be.
Like my nephew, I have an ‘I’m doing this by myself’ solo mentality.
And I push God’s hands away from the keys (be they piano or computer or….).
Which means I’m occupied with pushing, not playing or typing.
Which makes it hard to play or type.
But I struggle on.

And then, finally, I remember that God is still standing beside me.
I don't have to play solo.

So I ask God,
“Can we play a duet?”

He sits down next to me.
And, together, we begin to play.

Jesus said, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.” John 15: 4






















Tuesday, 21 February 2017

A chip off the rock.........Part 1 by Ruth Johnson

"He shall cry unto Me.  
Thou art my Father, 
my God, 
and the rock of my salvation."
                              Psalm 89:26





‘He’s a chip of the old block’ refers to a person who looks, has the personality or character of their family, particularly their father!  As Christians I think we’d probably all like to be seen as a ‘chip off the rock’ of our heavenly Father, the God of our salvation.

We are each hewn from that rock of salvation, which we know is far more than just being saved from sin and eternal life.  Ps.24 says, we need ‘clean hands and pure hearts’ we should, 'lift up your heads oh you gates…that the King of glory may come in'.  As Christian writers’ I'm sure we all want to use our writing gift  to draw people into a relationship and ongoing knowledge of the goodness and love of our heavenly Father. 

In Revelation it is written that each gate was made of a single pearl and the foundations of the Kingdom are precious stones yet the stone we know as most precious, the diamond, isn’t mentioned.  God’s children are called both living stones and precious. Could we be those missing diamonds?  As if an answer to my question the other day a friend told me of 'seeing' a tree it's branches hanging with diamonds ready to be pick and used.  

The picture above is a diamond in the rock in its raw state. Only when a precious stone is honed at the hands of an expert cutter is  its real value and potential envisaged.  And, much of that stone, will fall on the cutting room floor to make it’s every facet perfect to reflect the light.  

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who spends far more time re-writing and editing than it took to put the original words to paper.  And those who have had professional editing I’m sure will see a similarity of that to the preparation of a precious stone.

I am convinced every experience in life has a purpose, what we see as loss God sees as gain.  I’ve just had a big ‘0’ birthday and I see much of my life on the cutting room floor.   But, as with Joseph I wait on the Lord, and with others I am beginning to perceive God is about to do a new thing, something beyond our imaginations.  I want to be ready to be placed in the setting God has prepared for me. 

Jesus is our gateway, He wants to fill us with His joy for His desire is that all His children should fully reflect His light.  A diamond reflects a rainbow of colours always a reminder that God keeps His promises.  And when His people come together in unity one of those is He will command the blessing and we will become part of that crown of splendour and diadem in the hand of our God.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A quest for simplicity by Sue Russell

Not long ago I came across a thread on social media, emanating from a writer in America, asking her fellow-writers if they preferred complex or simple sentence constructions. It reminded me of a discussion I had many years ago regarding the works of C.S.Lewis. I am an admirer of his and was trying to persuade my friend to read his books, but he complained, 'His sentences are far too long. By the time I get to the end I have to start again.' It's true there are some very long sentences to be found: I came across one recently that contained 78 words. For me, because it was all consummately logical and perfectly punctuated, it presented no problems, despite the proliferation of subordinate clauses. I then remembered a novel I'd been lent while in hospital, which caused increasing irritation such that the story was completely lost. The sentences were almost all very short - some only three or four words. To my eye and inner ear it read in jerky fits and starts.
So perhaps as a reader I do prefer more complex sentences; but as a writer I am trying to do the opposite. The more I write the more I want my writing to be limpid, almost transparent, allowing what is important - the story, and all that it entails - to be clear. I don't always achieve it, because (like many others reading this blog, I suspect) I have had a lifelong love of words. However, more and more now I am aiming for uncluttered simplicity. Against such a background the well-chosen word, phrase, sentence, or telling description, glows more richly.
But is simplicity also an artifice? As writers we are aware that dialogue and inner monologue which sound natural are anything but: they are a construct, a device, and some writers do it better than others. The very gifted poet and novelist Helen Dunmore comes to mind. From the four or five books of hers that I've read I've gleaned an impression of a particularly straightforward, unfussy style. Nevertheless her characters are memorable, her plots gripping and her settings finely evoked. So I'm asking myself, 'Is this something I can learn to do, or to do better?'
A former member of one of the critique groups to which I belong, someone who certainly didn't lack talent and who wrote mainly fantasy and science fiction, was prone to passages that bordered on the purple. In his attempt to dazzle with descriptions of alien scenes he gave me, for one, a kind of indigestion. He achieved the reverse of what he intended; the inner eye was blinded by his prose, which actually got in the way of the scene he was trying to evoke. This taught me something useful: the over-egged pudding makes you sick, and a gilded lily is no longer a lily at all. It may even be that we have divine endorsement for the cause of simplicity and naturalness. 'Look how the wild flowers grow,' says Jesus in Matthew 6. '...I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers.'







Sue writes as S.L.Russell and has five novels out there in the usual places. A sixth is possibly in a very long pipeline. She lives in Kent and sometimes in France, has a web site www.slrussell.net and blogs at suerussellsblog.blogspot.com